1. Opinion

Editorial: Scott should veto alimony changes

Gavel and soundblock on white with soft shadow;
Gavel and soundblock on white with soft shadow;
Published Mar. 21, 2016

Gov. Rick Scott should veto the Legislature's latest attempt to overhaul Florida's divorce laws. Lawmakers last week sent legislation to the governor that lumps alimony reform with a new, misguided formula for determining child custody arrangements. The state's divorce policies may be ripe for reform, but these changes miss the mark on too many important fronts.

The legislation, SB 668, would fundamentally alter the way alimony is distributed in Florida. It sets up a formula for alimony payments based on the amount of income earned by each spouse and the length of the marriage. It also provides a way to end permanent alimony payments, terminating them when a receiving spouse gets remarried and allowing for review when a paying spouse retires or reaches full Social Security age. Spouses in marriages that end before the couple's two-year anniversary are ineligible to receive alimony. There is an argument to be made that these changes would offer more predictability for couples who are divorcing.

But one of the more controversial parts of the legislation would allow alimony agreements to be renegotiated if the recipient's income rises by 10 percent. That trigger is far too low for spouses whose primary work had been child-rearing. That group is primarily women, and the governor should stand up for them.

The most disturbing aspect of the legislation is its impact on child custody rules. Under the new legislation, there would be a "premise" that divorced parents would spend equal amounts of time parenting their children. The 50-50 split would occur unless a judge decides to make an adjustment by weighing 20 factors already outlined in state law, including concerns about a parent's mental and physical health or moral fitness. This provision could make it too easy for judges who don't want to do the hard work of investigating individual family situations to rely on one-size-fits all terms. Children in sensitive custody battles deserve better than that.

These issues involving alimony and child custody have percolated in the Legislature for more than a decade. Then-Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, directed in 2005 that an amendment be added to a family court bill to require judges to provide equal contact with both parents when it is in the best interest of the child. The effort failed. Three years ago, Lee — who was divorced and locked in a child custody fight with his former wife at the time — added a similar child-sharing amendment to a bill that the Legislature passed. Scott vetoed the bill, finding that making changes to alimony that would have been retroactive could produce "unfair, unanticipated results.''

This year's legislation, sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, is more tempered than previous versions. It is not retroactive when dealing with children but unclear about the impact on existing alimony payments. The alimony changes also remain too punitive toward mothers who have focused on raising children, and judicial discretion still has been limited when it comes to what is best for children in shared custody arrangements.

Scott should get his veto pen ready again.

Correction: This editorial has been edited to reflect the following correction: Florida law lists 20 factors judges weigh when deciding child custody issues in divorce cases. A March 14 editorial cited a different number of factors.