Could the fourth time be the charm?
After governors have vetoed three previous attempts to change Florida’s alimony laws, the latest proposed revamp is headed to the full Senate for a vote.
The Florida Bar’s Family Law Section and supporters of overhauling alimony laws clashed for a decade. But the former foes have banded together this year to endorse a plan to do away with “permanent” alimony and make a series of other changes.
Recent coverage –
- Five Questions on this year’s alimony bill with Philip Wartenberg
- Five Questions on this year’s alimony bill with Bob Doyel
A group of mostly older women who rely on the payments, however, are pleading with lawmakers to block the overhaul, saying they’ve been left out of the discussions over changes that could upend their lives.
Several members of the “First Wives Advocacy Group” addressed the Senate Rules Committee before the panel approved the proposal (SB 1416) on Wednesday.
As with previous versions of the bill, their main source of concern is a proposal to do away with permanent alimony. The measure would set up a process for ex-spouses who make alimony payments to seek modifications to alimony agreements when they want to retire.
Supporters of the legislation say it would codify into law a court decision in a 1992 divorce case that judges use as a guidepost when making decisions about retirement.
Senate bill sponsor Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who has shepherded similar legislation in the past, tried to assure the committee Wednesday that this year’s version would not unconstitutionally affect existing alimony settlements, a concern raised by Gov. Ron DeSantis when he vetoed an alimony bill last year.
This year’s proposal “went to what is currently case law,” Gruters said, pointing to the 1992 ruling.
“So what you can do right now, under case law, we now codify all those laws and make that the rule of law. So we basically just solidify that. So from a retroactivity standpoint, no, because if anything could be modifiable before, it’s still modifiable. If it’s a non-modifiable agreement, you still can’t modify that agreement,” he said.
Getting rid of 'permanent alimony'
But Leisa Athey, a permanent alimony recipient, said the bill only incorporates “strategically selected parts” of the decades-old case.
Athey said judges sometimes agree to permanent alimony when assets have been dissipated by an ex-spouse.
“When people get divorced, there’s not always equitable distribution,” Athey said. “So the way judges combat that is they award permanent alimony, so that each party just walks away with an equitable share.”
Under the proposed changes, alimony recipients will have no recourse if, for example, a business has been dissolved or handed over to someone else, Athey argued.
“How do they go back and get their half of the shared business?” she said. “That’s over and done with. … Listen, it happens all the time in divorces.”
Supporters of changes have spent 10 years trying to overhaul the laws, which haven’t been updated in decades. Many of the advocates are wealthy professionals who contend that lifelong alimony obligations have forced them to continue working long past the time when they wanted to retire.
DeSantis’ veto last year marked the third time that bills have made it through the Republican-controlled Legislature only to be rejected. Former Gov. Rick Scott twice vetoed such legislation, with a standoff over the issue leading to a near-fracas outside Scott’s office in 2016.
Along with doing away with permanent alimony, this year’s proposal would set a five-year limit on what is known as “rehabilitative” alimony. Under the plan, people who have been married 20 years or longer would be eligible to receive payments for up to 75 percent of the term of the marriage.
Defining 'supportive relationships' under law
The bill also would allow people paying alimony to seek modifications if “a supportive relationship exists or has existed” involving their ex-spouses in the previous year. Critics argue the provision is vague and could apply to temporary roommates who help alimony recipients cover living expenses for short periods of time.
Camille Fiveash, a 62-year-old Milton resident, has long battled the effort to eliminate permanent alimony. She told the Senate panel Wednesday her group has about 3,000 members statewide.
“Most are Republican women, most are stay-at-home moms, moms that home-schooled. Men go off and work a lot of times, and the wife does stay home. That still happens today,” she said.
Fiveash said the women were not included in negotiations over the bill during the past year.
“We have not been asked. We have never been asked, and we have never been consulted on our opinion,” she said.
This year’s version of the bill does not include a controversial provision that would have required judges to begin with a “presumption” that children should split their time equally between parents. Scott largely pinned his 2016 veto of an alimony bill on a similar child-sharing provision. The Family Law Section fiercely opposed the inclusion of the child-sharing provision in previous iterations of the alimony-reform proposals.
An identical House alimony bill (HB 1409) needs to clear one more committee before it could go to the full House.
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