Alimony reform supporters rally around documentary film

Rep. Ritch Workman says he will propose revisions to the language of the state’s alimony law.
Rep. Ritch Workman says he will propose revisions to the language of the state’s alimony law.
Published Jan. 22, 2014

The Zephyrhills Cinema 10 is playing more than Oscar contenders and popcorn flicks. Also on the marquee is an obscure documentary about alimony.

"Divorce Corp. has just arrived at the theater!" the independent moviehouse trumpeted on Facebook. "This documentary uncovers how children are torn from their homes, unlicensed custody evaluators extort money, and abusive judges play God with people's lives while enriching their friends."

The screenings, scheduled through Thursday, are part of an aggressive push to change Florida's alimony laws.

The laws were nearly overhauled last year, when the state House and Senate passed a controversial proposal to end permanent alimony payments. However, the bill fell victim to a last-minute veto by Gov. Rick Scott.

This year, the nonprofit Family Law Reform is working to build support for alimony reform before the session begins, president Alan Frisher said.

In July, Frisher published his 237-page book, Divorcing the System: Exposing the Injustice of Family Law. One month later, he held an alimony reform summit that drew more than 300 people to Orlando. The Divorce Corp. screenings are another way to engage the public, Frisher said.

"We're trying to educate people that reform is absolutely necessary," he said. "People are getting hurt by the system. We have to do something about it."

Still, Frisher and Family Law Reform are likely to encounter strong opposition in Tallahassee.

"It will still be controversial," said women's rights lobbyist Barbara DeVane, who opposed last year's attempt to revamp the alimony laws.

"If there is anything that will harm women and children, we will fight it."

In addition to ending permanent alimony, the 2013 alimony bill sought to cap payments based on salary and length of marriage. Some of its provisions would have been retroactive, giving the courts authority to modify existing arrangements between former spouses.

The proposal prompted one of the most emotionally charged debates of last year's legislative session. Men (and a handful of women) told stories about alimony obligations that nearly bankrupted them. Former wives argued that they needed the payments because they had given up their careers to raise families.

The Family Law Section of the Florida Bar raised another concern: The retroactive provisions might be unconstitutional because couples had divided up property and assets with the expectation of alimony payments.

Scott echoed that argument when explaining his veto.

So far, no state lawmaker has filed a new alimony bill to be considered during this year's session. But Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, said he is working on revising the language.

Workman said the new version won't try to end permanent alimony or include any of the retroactive provisions that drew ire. Instead, he said he will propose smaller "fixes" to the existing law, such as adding language that both spouses should expect their standard of living to fall following a divorce.

Workman is also pushing for a provision that would allow retirees to "retire" from paying alimony.

Would the proposed changes win Scott's approval? Workman is hopeful.

"The governor has a lot to do this session, and he doesn't want the drama," Workman said. "But I've talked to him and these are changes I think he will support."

Scott spokesman John Tupps was non-committal. "We will carefully review any legislation that is filed," he said.

Meanwhile, Family Law Reform is focused on winning support on the ground.

About 100 people attended the "premiere" of Divorce Corp. at the Zephyrhills movie theater on Jan. 10, owner Larry Rutan said. Another 40 have attended other showings, including one featuring director Joe Sorge.

As far as business goes, Rutan said the documentary has been "in the middle of the pack."

"Of the 10 (films) I've had, it wasn't the highest grossing and it wasn't the lowest grossing," he said.

But that's not Rutan's only reason for showing the documentary. He himself is in the middle of a four-year divorce that has taken an emotional and financial toll.

"People need to know that our family law system is broken," he said.