Overhaul of Florida Alimony Laws Appears Headed for Passage
A major overhaul of Florida alimony law will get to the Senate floor for debate Wednesday and has stirred excitement among supporters who maintain it will bring fairness to a system that has so long been fodder for bad divorce jokes.
But opponents from family law attorneys to women’s organizations criticize the gender-neutral bill as a financial danger to stay-at-home moms. Barbara DeVane, a lobbyist with National Organization for Women, called the reform package “abominable” and asked legislators to consider the plight of older women.
“I ask you to protect the older women who didn’t stay in the work force, maybe they never even went into the work force, and maybe when they got to 40 or 50 years old, their husband traded them in for a younger model,” DeVane said.
While heavily opposed by The Florida Bar’s family law section, Representative Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, has built strong bipartisan support for HB 231. His alimony bill failed to pass last year.
“I’m trying very hard to change alimony in a way that is gender neutral, where it supports the family and it allows judges flexibility, while giving them some guidelines in what should and should not take place,” Workman told the House Judiciary Committee.
While it does away with permanent alimony, Workman said, “It does not mean that a spouse from a dissolved marriage could not have permanent alimony, it just would not be called that. The duration may very well extend far past (the payer’s) life span.”
Representative Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, rebutted criticism that the bill is an attack on women.
“The trend is that women are soon going to be the ones paying the majority of alimony,” he said, “as more and more women become the driving force in the job market and become the breadwinner in the family.”
According to numerous government and nonprofit research sources, women have been attending college at increasingly greater numbers than men since the 1970s and have a higher graduation rate. By 2011, women made up 57 percent of workers in professional and related occupations. Also, 47 percent of family law attorneys nationwide reported an increase in women being ordered to pay alimony between 2009-2011.
The House and Senate versions have gone through many revisions. At present, they would end permanent alimony, allow alimony payers to stop or significantly reduce payments at retirement, set guidelines for judges that would make the amount of alimony more predictable, split marriage in three lengths for compensation, allow retroactive modifications to judicial orders but not mediated settlements, reduce alimony payments for unemployed payers, and require recipients to meet a preponderance of the evidence standard when asking for more money or continued support after a payer’s retirement.
The bills were promulgated by Florida Alimony Reform, a grassroots movement of alimony payers and their wives or girlfriends who avoid marriage to prevent first wives from obtaining their income and assets.
They are modeled after similar legislation that in 2011 was enacted in Massachusetts.
There has been a nationwide alimony reform trend for several years that has put an emphasis on limiting alimony to some bare minimum of what is necessary to get the stay-at-home spouse back into the work force. The New Jersey Legislature is currently working on a very similar bill.
The reforms are intended to help payers such as Dr. Steven Schang, a Pensacola cardiologist who testified March 12 before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Schang’s wife divorced him 17 years ago after 14 years of marriage. At 65, he applied for reduction of his permanent alimony order, resigned from his position at the hospital and started retirement. On Feb. 6, at 71 and after spending $70,000 in legal fees, the Escambia circuit court told Schang he would continue paying alimony until he died.
In addition, he must maintain a life insurance policy to insure the ex-wife receives alimony another five years after his death, he said. Schang followed a Florida Bar family law section lawyer to the podium who argued state alimony law was already progressive.
“So much for the glib retorts of the family law section as to being able to modify,” Schang said. “I had to go back to work.”
Senator Darren Soto, D-Orlando, and a family lawyer at Dorough, Calzada & Soto, said his biggest concern with the law is the uncertainty clients face. He said it’s impossible for him to predict what his clients will pay because every judge is different.
“We need a structure for alimony,” Soto said. “Right now, it is wholly arbitrary.”
Summing up the hearing, chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, recalled Florida Bar Family Law Section attorney Thomas Duggar saying up to 95 percent of all divorces are mediated agreements that never get to a judge.
“They never get to a judge because they can’t afford your fees, sir,” Lee said. “What you’re arguing, in my opinion, is nothing more than to continue to drag these things for a process that has failed families, and I’m glad you came here. I hope you feel good about what you do.”
Two days after that vote, the House Judiciary Committee debated the bill. Elisha Roy of Sasser, Cester & Sasser in West Palm Beach made another plea for The Bar Family Law Section against the bill. One component creates definitions for long-, mid- and short-term marriages. The shortest is 12 years or less. According to the Center for Disease Control, almost a third of all first marriages end in 10 years or less. Almost half of all first marriage divorces occur within 12 years.
The bill proposed judicial guidelines capping most mid- and long-term alimony at half the length of the marriage rather than the duration of the marriage as the law now reads. There was a presumption of no alimony for short-term marriages. Roy said that’s an issue that would create inequities and increase litigation.
“Florida has sat all along in a position where we want to support families, we want to allow our parents to be able to make decisions about what they’re going to do for their kids,” Roy said. “What this bill says is you’ve got to work, you’ve got to work to your highest potential while you’re at work because if you don’t you’re going to have a very short period of time — half the length of your marriage — to figure out a way to make back that Social Security (and retirement) income you sacrificed.”
The guidelines also would create situations where a stay-at-home parent would not be able to make ends meet even by returning to the work force, while an ex-spouse might have sufficient income to meet the need, she said. “Again, we’re going to end up litigating that issue.”
Some relief came for stay-at-home moms when the bill passed Thursday through the Senate Rules Committee. It was amended to allow “bridge-the-gap” alimony, but only if the wife can overcome a preponderance of the evidence standard that there is a need. However, the “standard of living” to which the spouse is accustomed has been replaced with “needs and necessities of life,” which could in many instances let payers pay less.
Roy said the Family Law Section was most opposed to the retroactivity clause.
“What we’re doing is opening the floodgates to every (trial) divorce that has ever been decided in the state,” Roy said.
Just before the House committee passed the bill, Moskowitz gave perhaps the most enthusiastic endorsement.
“This is not a good bill. This is a great bill!” he said.
While much of the debate came from advocates for alimony payers versus alimony recipients, Moskowitz said he was a child of divorce and had an insider’s seat to the 10-year period that his mother received alimony.
She used the money to buy a business even though she had never run one before. She succeeded, sold it, started another business and sold that one, too. If she had gotten permanent alimony, that may or not have happened, Moskowitz said.
“The one thing that would not have happened is the healing process. My parents did not have a good relationship when she was on alimony. When the money stopped coming, it allowed my family and my parents to redevelop that relationship, and I can tell you my parents are friends. My dad is her lawyer now. But that only happened because the dependency stopped.”