Editorial: Gov. Scott should veto alimony bill

Published Apr. 25, 2013

It's true that the 1950s are long past and men and women are more economically equal. But a bill sent to Gov. Rick Scott goes too far in taking alimony support from lower-earning spouses and stay-at-home parents, who are still overwhelmingly women. State law governing divorce is ripe for reform, but the Legislature has gone too far. Lawmakers have approved a whole new set of rules that unfairly rebalance the alimony scales to free higher earners of their long-term obligations to a former spouse. It's not fair, and the governor should veto the bill.

Abolishing permanent alimony has been a long-standing goal of advocates for primarily divorced men and their new spouses. The group, Family Law Reform, says judges in the state sometimes provide permanent alimony in marriages that last as little as 15 years. This shackles the divorcing spouses to each another for life and may provide little incentive for alimony-receiving spouses to re-enter the workforce or remarry.

The group has a point. There are abuses. But the bill's pluses don't outweigh its minuses. The legislation dictates a series of formulas and unreasonably limits judicial discretion. What is fair in divorce is highly dependent on individual circumstances.

Under the legislation, alimony would be based almost entirely on the duration of the marriage without giving due weight to the needs of the parties and the capacity of the higher-earning spouses to pay, as it is now. There would be a presumption against any alimony for marriages of 11 years or fewer — longer than about half of all marriages last. That would preclude even a brief period of financial support for a spouse to obtain job training or a degree. And even when alimony is awarded, it could be for no more than 50 percent of the length of the marriage, unless a judge determines in writing why there is a need to depart from the rule.

Consider the woman who leaves a career to raise children upon mutual agreement with her husband that this division of labor is best for the family. If she finds herself divorced after 16 years, she would be expected to re-enter the workforce and become fully self-supporting within eight years. This simply ignores the harsh realities of today's job market, and it tells parents they cannot risk staying home with their young children.

This is a full-employment bill for divorce attorneys. The legislation applies retroactively and allows alimony payers to reopen their finalized divorce settlements. Not only will this overwhelm the courts, but ex-spouses who were promised alimony and structured their lives based on that income stream could soon find it comes to an abrupt end. When divorces are settled, lower-earning spouses often agree to give up property or other marital assets in exchange for that alimony. It isn't fair to have those payments yanked away.

The family law section of the Florida Bar opposes the bill because of its impact on children. Divorce law needs work, but the Legislature went overboard and Scott should veto the legislation.