Carlton: Christmas rush at the courthouse: Divorce me, quick!

Here's a Christmas rush you didn't expect: Lawyers are scrambling to get pending divorces finished before New Year's Day, when new tax law makes alimony worse, arguably for both sides.
People in Hillsborough County are scrambling to get pending divorces finished before New Year's Day, when new tax law makes alimony worse, arguably for both sides.  [Times files.]
People in Hillsborough County are scrambling to get pending divorces finished before New Year's Day, when new tax law makes alimony worse, arguably for both sides. [Times files.]
Published December 20 2018
Updated December 20 2018

There's a saying around courthouses: In criminal court, you see bad people at their best.

But in divorce court — where couples that once professed love have been known to drain the family savings in a lengthy battle over who gets the pots and pans — you see good people at their worst. (Seriously: I once heard of two soon-to-be-exes going to the mat over who got to keep a horse.)

At your local courthouse right now, here's a Christmas rush you might not have expected:

In divorce court in Hillsborough County — technically the Family Law Division — there's a scramble to get pending dissolutions of marriage done before New Year's Day.

Why?

Blame the government (usually a safe bet.) Longtime federal tax law is about to change in a big way on the subject of alimony — money one ex-spouse pays another post-marriage.

Often the person getting the alimony hadn't been employed, maybe stayed home to raise kids, or at least made significantly less money than the spouse who will be the ex writing the checks. (The payer is still usually male and the payee female, though people who toil in these matters daily say they're seeing more women paying up.)

But as of Jan. 1, 2019 — less than two weeks away — alimony will no longer be tax deductible for the person doing the paying.

Which is a big deal when you have a big income and you write alimony checks containing an impressive number of zeros.

Under the current about-to-end conditions, say you pay your ex $10,000 a month. Maybe you were out of pocket, say, $7,500 after the tax break.

After Dec. 31st, that's a straight ten grand out of a payer's pocket. Which sure could hurt the incentive for soon-to-be ex-spouses to agree to a higher amount of alimony in future divorces.

"It takes away one of our tools for settlement," says family law attorney Kristin Kirkner. "It’s a big deal."

The new law also says the person who gets alimony now won't be taxed on it. People who know this tax stuff tell me that benefit will likely be outweighed by losing the above-mentioned incentive for the payer to pay more.

"I think it’s going to potentially hurt both sides," says Tampa lawyer Alex Caballero.

So in pending divorces, it’s in both of those sides' interests to get it nailed down before year's end. "It is dollars and cents," says Hillsborough Circuit Judge Ralph Stoddard.

"That’s created a mad scramble," says Caballero, of litigants trying to get in "under the wire" and lock in the old law before it changes. Savvy lawyers and mediators are even adding a caveat that if a case doesn't make the Dec. 31st deadline as expected, they reserve the right to revisit alimony. (Which is why you hire these people.)

Judges have jumped in to open extra docket time and office hours.

"Everyone in the family law community is busting their tails to get them done," says Tracy Sheehan, a part-time family law mediator and former judge.

Oh, and if divorce didn't already come with enough bad news, here's more:

Only already pending, soon-to-end cases have a prayer of getting finished this year, people in the system will tell you.

And so a courthouse that usually goes quiet as a church this time of year is a little less so as they work to make the endings end a little faster.

Contact Sue Carlton at [email protected]

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