By Gary Blankenship
A bill that would prohibit permanent alimony and restrict its temporary use in other cases has cleared a House committee, over the objections of the Bar’s Family Law Section.
CS/HB 231 passed the Civil Justice Subcommittee on February 13 after vigorous testimony from parties on both sides. The bill was amended slightly to conform to SB 731, which was introduced after the House bill.
The Family Law Section argued during testimony that alimony laws had already been reformed in 2010 and 2011, and those changes need time to work before any other amendments are considered.
“Today’s decision by the Civil Justice Subcommittee to pass CS/HB 231 . . . is a step backward in promoting public policy that is fair, equitable, and reasonable to both alimony payors and recipients,” section Chair Carin M. Porras said in a statement after the committee passed the bill by a 10-2 vote.
“We urge our legislators to carefully consider the negative unintended consequences of this legislation and not move this bill forward until those potentially devastating consequences are addressed and fixed,” she added.
“The negative results of this bill, if it becomes law, include a wave of new lawsuits, high costs to our already overburdened court system, and most importantly, as we heard in testimony today, unsettling and damaging effects on the financial situation of anyone currently receiving alimony, including the very real probability that many of them will be forced to seek financial support from the State of Florida.”
Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, sponsor of the bill, said the bill attempts to create guidelines similar to child support laws, which he said would cut down on litigation and expenses for divorcing families and avoid costly returns to court when a paying spouse retires or has a reduction in income.
It would also allow people with existing alimony agreements to go back to court and seek changes under the new law. He quoted former Fourth District Court of Appeal Judge Gary Farmer, in a concurring opinion in a 2002 case, when he wrote that “broad discretion in the award of alimony is no longer justifiable and should be discarded in favor of guidelines, if not an outright rule.”
“Alimony is broken,” Workman said. “Maybe I don’t have the perfect fix, but it is out there.”
The bill’s proponents told of struggling to make alimony payments as they suffered reduced income, got older and sought to work less or wanted to retire, and of troubles in seeking modifications through the courts. One likened permanent alimony to “the forced legal adoption of another fully capable adult for life.”
But opponents told of spending two or three decades raising children and taking care of homes and of then finding themselves trying to find a job. Even with training, they said, they were able to earn only a fraction of their former spouses’ pay, and needed alimony to avoid losing homes and to meet basic expenses.
As for cutting off benefits when the paying spouse retires, witnesses said because of their reduced years in the workforce and lower pay, their own Social Security benefits will be inadequate, leaving them below the poverty line and turning to the state for public assistance.
Some committee members said they planned to vote for the bill although they still had reservations, including about the retroactivity of its provisions and the requirement that judges use a clear and convincing standard when they deviate from guidelines in the bill.
Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Opa Locka, cast one of two votes against the bill. As an attorney, she used to handle domestic violence cases, and the bill, which she called “drastically unfair and harmful,” would hurt abused spouses who sometimes were prevented from working outside the home, she said.
“This bill will have another layer of control with respect to domestic violence,” she said. “Also, it’s a dangerous road to travel to allow retroactive changes to existing alimony agreements. The parties settled, they entered into a contract. . . . The parties chose to enter into an agreement and now the government is coming in and interfering.”
The bill next goes to the full House Judiciary Committee and a meeting had not been scheduled as this News went to press. SB 718 had not been scheduled before its referenced committees.