Advertisement

Alimony overhaul bill is back again in the Florida Legislature

Similar bills that would change alimony rules have been vetoed in the past.
 
The Capitol in Tallahassee is seen following Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.
The Capitol in Tallahassee is seen following Opening Day of the Florida Legislature on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. [ Times (2021) ]
Published March 21, 2023|Updated March 21, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — After three vetoes of similar measures, a proposal to revamp state alimony laws — one of the most emotionally charged issues tackled by Florida lawmakers over the past decade — is back on track in this year’s legislative session.

Supporters of changing the laws and The Florida Bar’s Family Law Section, who’ve fiercely clashed over the issue in the past, say they’ve reached an accord on the latest version.

But left out of the mix are the “First Wives,” a group of mostly older women who have traveled to the state Capitol year after year to plead with Republican leaders to leave existing alimony agreements off the chopping block.

As in previous versions of the bill, the main source of contention this year is a proposal that would do away with what is known as “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.

Related: In Florida, the fight over alimony can be brutal

Supporters of this year’s legislation (SB 1416 and HB 1409) 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.

The bills would allow judges to reduce or terminate alimony, support or maintenance payments after considering a number of factors, such as “the age and health” of the person who makes payments; the customary retirement age of that person’s occupation; “the economic impact” a reduction in alimony would have on the recipient of the payments; and the “motivation for retirement and likelihood of returning to work” for the person making the payments.

Philip Wartenberg, a family law magistrate in Hillsborough County who is chairman of The Florida Bar’s Family Law Section, said that, unlike a similar bill vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year, the proposal would not require judges to modify alimony payments when someone retires.

Related: DeSantis vetoes controversial alimony overhaul bill

“It’s not a ‘shall,’ so it’s not an automatic right to retirement, which is what we opposed in last year’s bill, which we felt was truly one-sided in favor of payors,” Wartenberg told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview. “This is a ‘may.’ It’s very clear.”

But Robert Doyel, a former family law judge who is retired, disagreed.

“The modification part of the bill doesn’t say anything about what it applies to, therefore it applies to every situation, every order, previously entered. So it is absolutely retroactive,” Doyel, a former law professor, told the News Service. “They’re conning you by saying it’s not retroactive.”

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 maintain that lifelong alimony obligations have forced them to continue working long past the time when they wanted to retire.

Michael Buhler, chairman of the Florida Family Fairness committee, said in a statement that his group supports the deal brokered with the Family Law Section.

“Florida Family Fairness is pleased that we were able to come to an agreement with the Family Law Section of The Florida Bar to end permanent alimony and to create a statutory right to retire for alimony payors. Anything that adds clarity to this difficult process and ends permanent alimony is a win for Floridians,” Buhler said.

DeSantis’ veto last year marked the third time that bills have made it through the Republican-controlled Legislature only to have them nixed. 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.

Related: Florida's child support carousel exhausts parents, costs kids

In his 2022 veto message, DeSantis pointed to concerns about the bill (SB 1796) allowing ex-spouses to have existing alimony agreements amended.

“If CS/CS/SB 1796 were to become law and be given retroactive effect as the Legislature intends, it would unconstitutionally impair vested rights under certain preexisting marital settlement agreements,” the governor wrote.

Jan Killilea, who founded the “First Wives Advocacy Group” Facebook group a decade ago, said she “unleashed an angry mob” when she began speaking out against a proposal aimed at retroactively eliminating permanent alimony in 2013.

Killilea said she opposes the current bill, in part, because it does not include enforcement provisions requiring ex-spouses to fulfill alimony obligations. Killilea said her ex-husband owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in alimony payments but the courts haven’t forced him to pay the money. She predicted the bill would have dire consequences for older women whose sole source of income is alimony.

“It’s really sad that we’re the ones that this bill will affect, but we have no voice,” she said.

The bill, slated to be considered Thursday by the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee, has created a panic for the First Wives group women, who’ve banded together on Facebook and Twitter.

“It’s a mess. It’s an absolute mess,” said Camille Fiveash, a 62-year-old Milton woman who was married for 30 years and whose permanent alimony payments are her main source of income.

Fiveash is among women who contend that permanent alimony is their only armor against destitution and homelessness. Most of the alimony recipients didn’t work outside the home while raising children and supporting their former husbands as the men climbed the career ladder.

Many of the women said they agreed to give up assets such as family homes or retirement investments in exchange for permanent alimony, which they believed would last their lifetime.

“I’m going to be destitute and dependent on the state and I’m going to be collecting food stamps and everything else,” Fiveash said.

Along with doing away with permanent alimony, this year’s proposal would set a five-year limit on rehabilitative alimony. Under the plan, people married for less than three years would not be eligible for alimony payments, and those who have been married 20 years or longer would be eligible to receive payments for up to 75% of the term of the marriage.

The identical House and Senate bills also would allow alimony payors to seek modifications if “a supportive relationship exists or has existed” involving their ex-spouses in the previous year. Critics such as Doyel argue the provision is vague and could apply to temporary roommates who help alimony recipients cover living expenses for a short period of time.

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.

Wartenberg said he found the ex-spouses’ objections to the current proposal perplexing.

“I cannot really explain it other than fear of what has come before and perhaps a concern that this is doing the same thing that we believe prior bills were trying to do. We certainly don’t see it that way. In fact, we were the ones that were pushing for this language, last year, to be included,” he said. “We’re pleased with the product, as it is currently written.”

By Dara Kam, News Service of Florida

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Florida Legislature coverage

Sign up for our newsletter: Get Capitol Buzz, a special bonus edition of The Buzz with Emily L. Mahoney, each Saturday while the Legislature is meeting.

Watch the Florida Legislature live: The Florida Channel, a public affairs programming service funded by the Legislature, livestreams coverage at thefloridachannel.org. Its video library also archives coverage for later viewing.

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news from the state’s legislative session. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.