Alimony awards vary widely in the state of Florida, but a proposal heading to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s desk might change that. Under the current alimony law, a divorce in south Florida handled by a Miami or Boca Raton divorce lawyer might end with a generous alimony award. Yet the same couple and same attorneys in a central or north Florida divorce could wind up with a completely different alimony arrangement.
This spring, Governor Scott will again have the opportunity to determine the fate of legislation that could substantially reform Florida’s alimony and child support laws. In 2014, Scott vetoed an alimony reform proposal that could have retroactively modified existing divorce and alimony settlements. This year, legislators tweaked their reform proposal – Senate Bill 668 – to eliminate that problem. Senate Bill 668 has yet to reach Governor Scott’s desk, and some are urging him to veto rather than sign the legislation.
Senate Bill 668 would end permanent alimony payments in Florida. It creates a new formula that judges would use to decide the amount and duration of alimony payments, and it generally limits the duration of alimony payments to 25 to 75 percent of the length of the marriage. It also allows for a modification or a halt to alimony payments if the paying ex-spouse retires or if the receiving ex-spouse increases his or her income by ten percent or more. Senate Bill 668 also allows for the modification of alimony payments if the receiving partner enters a new “supportive” relationship.
However, the reform faces opposition from women’s groups and the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar because of a controversial provision involving child sharing. Despite the agreement on alimony, the Family Law Section is asking the governor to veto Senate Bill 668 because of another provision that would establish a “premise” that all divorce cases involving children should start with the assumption that parents will have equal child sharing time.
Maria Gonzalez, chair of the Family Law Section, said the attorneys’ group is against establishing any legal premise about time sharing, whether it’s fifty-fifty or any other ratio. Any premise “does not serve the best interest of the children,” Gonzalez told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Under the current law, there is no premise in favor of either parent. Judges are left to determine what is best for the children, and that’s a decision that can also impact child support payments.
Gonzalez said that the family law attorneys she represents favor the current system that allows judges to weigh as many as twenty factors to decide how much time a child should spend with each parent. Judges are also given discretion based on the individual details of each case. Gonzalez argues that one problem with establishing a legal premise in such cases is obvious. In individual cases, low-income parents who can’t afford a lawyer would be unable to mount a legal challenge to the premise.
Gonzalez added that some attorneys also find objectionable a section of Senate Bill 668 that compels judges to file their written findings regarding a family’s child-sharing plan. Such filings could make public the private details of families’ lives. “All kinds of very specific, detailed findings will now unfortunately have to be included in a final judgment,” Gonzalez warns. “And that is detrimental to families. It’s not in the best interest of children to have a final judgment air all of the family dynamics in written findings.”
Nevertheless, State Senator Tom Lee of Brandon, a proponent of the fifty-fifty child sharing premise, believes there are good reasons to support the legislation. Lee tells the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that enacting Senate Bill 668 will create “greater predictability and reliability” in custody cases. “Both (parents) will be treated equally when they enter the courthouse door,” Lee explains.
In addition to Lee, Governor Scott is being urged to sign Senate Bill 668 by State Representative Ritch Workman of Melbourne. Workman has sought for years to reform the state’s alimony laws. He told the Panama City News Herald that Senate Bill 668 is part of the effort to make divorce proceedings “gender neutral,” giving men and women equal footing at the start of the proceedings.
Family Law Reform, Inc., also supports the child-sharing premise, according to Alan Frisher, a financial planner in Melbourne, who heads up the organization. Family Law Reform has been working for changes to Florida’s alimony laws for the last eight years. Frisher told the Herald-Tribune that shared time with children is in the best interests of most families. But he also said the measure gives judges the discretion to alter that arrangement if the circumstances are warranted. “They can deviate from that. It’s not a problem,” he insists.
The Family Law Section of the Florida Bar supports the alimony changes, arguing that they will bring consistency to cases where awards now vary widely from judge to judge. A Boca Raton divorce attorney, for example, would help a divorcing spouse win the same alimony award in Boca Raton that the person would receive in a Pensacola or Jacksonville divorce court. The bill’s child sharing provision is the only reason they’re asking Governor Scott to veto the legislation. Senate Bill 668 does away with many of types of alimony familiar to couples. Permanent alimony, bridge-the-gap alimony, rehabilitative, and durational payments would be no longer ordered by judges.
Instead, awards would be based on the incomes of spouses, and judges would have the discretion to deviate from the guidelines. State Representative Bill Hager of Delray Beach told the Palm Beach Post that he’s spoken with both men and women who support the alimony changes. Hager said one female doctor was ordered to pay permanent alimony to an ex-husband – sporadically employed and cohabiting with a girlfriend – after a marriage of ten years. “It’s time to change these wrongs and live in the here and now,” Hager said.
When Senate Bill 668 arrives on Governor Scott’s desk, he will have fifteen days to sign or veto the legislation. If the bill becomes law, it will go into effect on October 1, 2016. Whether Governor Scott signs or vetoes the controversial measure, it might be wiser in the future if Florida’s lawmakers addressed the child-sharing issue and the alimony issue in separate pieces of legislation.
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