“The system ran according to legal title, greatly to the benefit of wealthy spouses, mainly husbands with a lot of property, and greatly to the detriment of women, mainly poor women,” said Brett R. Turner, an expert on equitable distribution who works for the Charlottesville-based National Legal Research Group. “Virginia was late in the game, and Betty deserves a lot of credit for doing the groundwork.”
Ms. Thompson helped shape the state’s adoption of equitable-distribution statutes in 1982.
Lawrence D. Diehl, an eminent family law lawyer in Chesterfield, Va., who later took the lead in refining the 1982 statute, said Ms. Thompson’s work “recognized the value of homemaking services and other non-monetary services” in the divorce process.
From 1995 to 2009, Ms. Thompson chaired the Virginia Bar Association’s family law coalition that advised the General Assembly on legislation related to divorce law.
Through the coalition, Ms. Thompson was involved in what Diehl called a “monumental” and successful effort in 1998 to give Virginia courts the authority to set a defined duration for spousal support instead of allowing payments to continue indefinitely.
Betty Ann Thompson was born Aug. 26, 1924, in Washington and raised in Arlington, where she was a graduate of Washington-Lee High School.
She was the second oldest of five daughters of a contractor and the only one of her siblings to pursue a professional career, she once told The Post. She received a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University in 1946.
In 1957, she lost a Democratic primary battle for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates after pledging foremost to battle court-ordered racial integration in public schools. She called the law “a cancerous growth on our body politic” and likened it to the excesses of Nazi Germany and international communism.
She told The Post in 1981: “I don’t think you hold to a view you had 20 years ago. I have no prejudices against black people and I consider myself very open-minded. But I think that whether you’re black or white, you should have equal rights but you have to earn them.”
Ms. Thompson, who had no immediate survivors, never married but had a companion who died in an accident many years ago, according to friends and colleagues. She warned against entering marriage with no forethought to its possible collapse. She advised premarital contacts.
“When you marry somebody, you mortgage yourself for life,” she told The Post in 1981. “It’s not like buying a car, where you have to fill out all sorts of forms. Marriage is a totally unwritten contract based solely on ‘I love you’ and there are no warranties. That’s the big myth about marriage. People think they’ve bought a lifetime of security.”