by Jesse J. Bennett, Jr.
Bridge-the-gap alimony is emerging as a potent tool for the marital and family practitioner in obtaining awards for the short-term needs of their clients. Understanding its uses and limitations is essential for the proper representation of clients in such circumstances. This article will trace the development of bridge-the-gap alimony in Florida jurisprudence, describe the differing ways in which Florida courts have characterized it, and explore its potential uses.
The earliest mention of the term bridge-the-gap is contained in Murray v. Murray, 374 So. 2d 622 (Fla. 4th DCA 1979).1 In Murray, the trial court ordered the husband, a wealthy man of 72, to pay his wife (a 40-year-old woman of modest means) $1,000 per month rehabilitative alimony for four years, or until she received her bachelors degree, whichever came first.2 The marriage had lasted a mere seven months.3
The court observed “at the most, however, we believe that proof would justify a brief period of alimony sufficient to allow the wife to ‘bridge’ the gap between the high standard of living enjoyed during the brief marriage and the more modest standard that the wife can provide for herself.”4 Therefore, bridge-the-gap alimony began its existence as a method of satisfying short-term needs in a brief marriage.
Nothing further developed with the doctrine until the Third District Court of Appeal decision in Iribar v. Iribar, 510 So. 2d 1023 (Fla. 3d DCA 1987). In Iribar, the wife appealed the rehabilitative award of $1,000 per month, for an 18-month term, arguing that she needed five years for rehabilitation.5 This case involved a 10-year childless marriage, in which the wife had pursued her own career path.6 The Third District upheld the award, noting that the wife was employed, had adequate job skills, and did not need rehabilitation, “other than to ease her transition from a married to a single status.”7 Once again, the doctrine of bridge-the-gap alimony was used as a method to obtain short-term need in a short-term marriage.
In 1990, the First District Court of Appeal approved bridge-the-gap as a form of rehabilitative alimony in Shea v Shea, 572 So. 2d 558 (Fla. 1st DCA 1990). In Shea, the trial court awarded the former marital home to the wife as lump sum rehabilitative alimony.8 The husband attacked the award on several grounds, including the lack of specificity in the wife’s rehabilitation plan (which failed to delineate the “form and duration of her intended efforts”).9
The court upheld the award, observing that “even though a spouse is already employed, or employable, an award of rehabilitative alimony may also be justified as a bridge-the-gap measure, to aid the recipient in making the transition from a marital to a single state.”10 Unfortunately the opinion fails to delineate the parties’ ages, incomes, or length of the marriage.
The following year, the Fifth District Court of Appeal took a contrary position in Martin v. Martin, 582 So. 2d 784 (Fla. 5th DCA 1991). In Martin, the wife was awarded $450 per month as alimony (the trial court failed to specify the type of alimony award) until the parties’ minor child reached school age.11 The wife defended the award despite her lack of a specific plan or need for rehabilitation, as justified to assist her to “weather the storm and bridge the gap.”12
The Fifth District disagreed, declaring “there is no support in law or logic for such an award as rehabilitative alimony. If such were permitted, then one can imagine no bounds to the limits—how far does one go before the storm is weathered or the gap is bridged?”13 According to the Fifth District, an alimony award must fit within one of three categories: permanent support; rehabilitative to reach a specific goal; and as a vehicle for equitable distribution.14
The message is clear: If you practice in the Fifth District, seeking to weather the storm is not enough for an award; you must present the court with a specific need and plan for rehabilitation to satisfy short-term needs.
Earlier this year, the Second District Court of Appeal took a different approach. It approved a lump sum alimony permanent award payable in installments for bridging the gap purposes in Borchard v. Borchard, 24 Fla. Law Weekly D670, D670 (Fla. 2d DCA, March 12, 1999). In Borchard, the trial court awarded the wife $25,000 as lump sum alimony payable at the rate of $1,000 per month.15 The trial court ruled that permanent periodic alimony was inappropriate for this five-year marriage and that the wife’s rehabilitation plan would not increase her income. However, the court found that the wife did need “financial help during her transition to being a single mom.”16
The Borchard opinion begins its analysis by reviewing the alimony statute, F.S. §61.08.17 This statute clearly specifies two types of alimony: rehabilitative or permanent.18 Either form may be payable in periodic payments, a lump sum, or a combination.19 Therefore, the Borchard court reasons that lump sum alimony is not a type of alimony itself; rather, it is a means of accomplishing rehabilitative or permanent alimony awards.20
The court observed that the intended legislative function of lump sum alimony has evolved over the last 50 years. Prior to the enactment of Florida’s equitable distribution statute, §61.075 (first enacted October 1, 1988), lump sum alimony was the vehicle used for equitable distribution of marital assets. The equitable distribution statute rendered that usage obsolete.
The Borchard court reasons that since F.S. §61.08 continues to include the language authorizing lump sum alimony after the enactment of F.S. §61.075, the legislature must have intended for lump sum payments to be used for awards other than equitable distribution.21 Thus, the Second District Court of Appeal holds that “permanent lump sum alimony can be used as a means to assist the transition of a spouse from married status to single status in cases where this need is demonstrated.”22 Potential uses include purchasing furniture and household items, buying or leasing a car, moving expenses, and deposits for an apartment or utilities. The Borchard court, however, reaffirmed its previous position that an award of rehabilitative alimony requires a plan more specific than simply bridging the gap.23
While the Borchard opinion is appealing in its innovative approach, upon closer inspection, a number of issues arise:
1) Why should a permanent award (as lump sum alimony payable in installments over a fixed term) require a less specific plan than a rehabilitative award?
2) Is a permanent alimony award ever justified in a five-year marriage to a recipient with a college degree?
3) If the permanent alimony award is for support purposes, why should the award be nonmodifiable?
4) Aren’t legitimate identifiable short-term needs more properly satisfied by a rehabilitative rather than permanent award?
Until the Supreme Court or legislature resolves the confusion, the prudent practitioner must be mindful of his or her district’s viewpoint in tailoring the request for short-term transitional support awards.
1 Murray, 374 So. 2d at 624.
2 Id. at 623.
5 Iribar, 510 So. 2d at 624.
8 Shea, 572 So. 2d at 559.
10 Id. at 560.
11 Martin, 582 So. 2d at 785.
12 Id. at 786.
15 Borchard, 24 Fla. Law Weekly at D671.
21 Id. at D671.
Jesse J. Bennett, Jr., practices marital and family law and family mediation in Winter Haven. He is board certified in marital and family law, a certified family mediator, and a fellow in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
This column is submitted on behalf of the Family Law Section, Ky M. Koch, chair, and Mark A. Sessums, editor.