Five Questions on this year’s alimony bill with Bob Doyel

The retired judge has long advocated for alimony recipients: 'I care about them.'

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For years, retired Circuit Judge Bob Doyel has taken a side in the yearslong fight to change the state’s alimony law. He’s stood up for alimony recipients because, in his words, he’s “tired of little old ladies getting screwed because they don't have the power.” (To be sure, many other divorced women are younger or middle aged.)

Doyel spent almost 16 years on the bench, mostly in Polk County family court in the state’s 10th Judicial Circuit. Since then, he’s written op-eds and testified in committees – possibly to stave off the inevitable. The last three alimony overhauls passed by the Legislature were vetoed, including the most recent bill last year. That trend may end soon. 

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The battle lines have always been drawn between alimony payers who feel like they’re shelling out too much and recipients, some of whom call themselves the "First Wives Club," who say they need everything they can get – when they get any alimony at all. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ objections last time were over that measure’s retroactivity, saying “it would unconstitutionally impair vested rights under certain preexisting marital settlement agreements” – in other words, unfairly break a deal between ex-spouses.  

This year’s bill (SB 1416), already zipping through the legislative session, isn’t retroactive, its backers say. Doyel disagrees, noting among other things that it doesn’t expressly say it’s not retroactive. The bill and its House companion would, among other things, delete a provision in state law for what’s called “permanent alimony,” and would also allow an end to or reduction in payments if the ex-spouse writing the checks retires. Most if not all of those provisions have been in previous bills.  

We had Five Questions for Doyel, which we asked in a phone interview. As usual, questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Why are you not in favor of this year’s bill?

Well, and you can quote me on this, saying that it is not retroactive is bullshit. OK? It doesn't say it's not retroactive. … The (alimony) modification part doesn't say anything about it.

OK. There’s also been some turmoil over wanting to write something called the Pimm case into state law. Can you explain what that was about?

Sure. There’s a case called Pimm, in which the man was obligated to pay child support and alimony. And he wanted to retire. At the time, you couldn't retire and not continue to pay, continue to have the alimony obligation. So over the course of litigation, back and forth, a set of rules was developed about the circumstances in which a person can either increase or decrease alimony. And there's a lot of good stuff beneficial to people trying to retire. I mean, I can remember back when the rule was you just about couldn't retire. You had to stay saddled with (the original amount). Well, that's wrong. It's always been wrong. And this Pimm case established some rules that allowed people who wanted to retire to have some relief, maybe even a cancellation of an obligation, depending on the circumstances. But it does not need to be in the law. It’s in black and white in case law. That's not any less well written than the statute. 

Why does the other side want it to be in state law?

Well, I'm just gonna be really blunt. I think this is a sellout. … The people behind this … have been co-opted by the rich white guys that pay money to the legislators who sponsor this stuff at the expense of the little old ladies in tennis shoes. I think that's horrible.

Why are you still fired up about this issue?

Because I care. There are people who are subject to the powers brought about against them in the Legislature. People contribute big money to people who pass legislation like this for the purpose of terminating their ongoing child support and alimony. The biggest problem with this, I think, is that there are lots of these people with money, rich guys who have signed marital settlement agreements that would be, or could be modified by this bill if it passes. That's the crux of it. And these women (with) marital settlement agreements, they gave up things in order to get the alimony. And now if the alimony is terminated, say, and they don't get those things back, they've lost. They may have given up a claim to their half of a house or other property, or an income-producing business or a right to participate in it. 

… Here’s what I mean: If a husband and a wife jointly operate a business then, I can tell you from experience, it's not practical to keep them running a business together once they split up. But let's say there's a plastic surgeon making $600,000 a year and his wife runs the business end of it. Maybe she's been doing it for 20 years. And when they split up, she says, "OK, I will give you free rein of the business. I won't make any demands on the business but I want $200,000 a year in alimony." If the recipient gives up all claims to whatever right she had to the business in exchange for an alimony payment, and then the alimony payment is terminated or reduced, then that's a screw job.

Do you think if this latest bill passes, it will put the issue to rest, at least indefinitely?

My response to that is, that's the end of the story. And the little old ladies will be screwed. And that’s why I speak up for them. Occasionally somebody listens to me and hopefully I'm articulate enough to make a point once in a while. But nobody, nobody cares about them. That's the thing I do. I care about them.

Contact Jim Rosica at jrosica@cityandstatefl.com and follow him on Twitter: @JimRosicaFL

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