(Editor's Note Update: Gov. Rick Scott vetoed SB 718 May 1, saying: "I have concluded that I cannot support this legislation because it applies retroactively and thus tampers with settled economic expectations of many Floridians who have experienced divorce.")
By Megan E. Davis
Legislation aimed at overhauling Florida’s system for awarding alimony is ready for consideration by Gov. Rick Scott after passing in both the Senate and House.
The Senate approved SB 718 with a 29-11 vote on April 4.
The House passed the Senate’s version of the proposed legislation with a vote of 85-31 on April 18.
As it considered the proposed legislation, the House elected to substitute SB 718 for the similarly worded HB 213 that it had considered up until then.
That move allowed both chambers to pass proposed legislation with the exact same language, eliminating the need for conference and making the bill ready to send to the governor immediately after House approval.
As lawmakers considered the proposed legislation, SB 718 continued to draw both lavish praise and sharp criticism.
The Florida Bar’s Family Law Section opposes the bill and recently formed a grassroots campaign called Truth About Florida Alimony to raise awareness about its position.
“We want to thank the legislators who voted against the bill,” said Family Law Section Chair Carin M. Porras.
“I am disappointed with those who voted to pass this legislation, which we strongly believe is not in the best interest of Florida families.”
The campaign issued a petition calling for Gov. Scott to veto the proposed legislation.
As this News went to press, the campaign had gathered 1,828 signatures to the petition, posted at www.change.org/petitions/florida-governor-rick-scott-veto-alimony-legislation.
More information about the group’s position is available at www.truthaboutflalimony.com.
In an earlier statement, Porras explained Family Law Section’s opposition further.
“SB 718 is clearly aimed at protecting male payors of alimony,” she said. “The legislation is anti-family and anti-woman. If enacted, the pending alimony legislation will cause a grave injustice to countless citizens of Florida, many who will have no choice but to turn to the government for assistance. We urge our legislators to carefully consider their actions regarding this one-sided and harmful attempt to radically change alimony provisions in the state.”
During various committee meetings, Family Law Section representatives, lawmakers, and citizens expressed concern that the bills disenfranchise women who in long-term marriages sacrificed their careers in order to stay at home and raise children.
On the other side, lawmakers and citizens spoke of an arbitrary, unfair system that requires payors to assume support for former spouses who choose not to work.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who introduced the bill, said it continues to protect women by retaining judicial discretion.
The bill also introduces predictability and fairness into the alimony award process.
“It can’t just be wild, wild West, I don’t like you, I don’t like her, and have a ruling,” she said, as the bill was debated in Senate committees.
The proposed legislation prioritizes bridge-the-gap alimony first, followed by rehabilitative alimony.
If the third type of alimony, durational, is awarded, a judge is required to make written findings explaining why the other two types of alimony were not appropriate in that case.
The bills also specify that the length of time for which durational alimony is awarded must not exceed half of the length of the marriage unless the party seeking a longer award shows by a preponderance of the evidence that a longer award is appropriate.
The proposed legislation sets several other guidelines that are based on the lengths of marriages.
For short-term marriages, defined as less than 11 years, a rebuttable presumption against awarding alimony exists.
Parties seeking bridge-the-gap or durational alimony may overcome that presumption by demonstrating by a preponderance of the evidence that such an award is appropriate.
Clear and convincing evidence is required to overcome the presumption when a party seeks durational alimony following a short-term marriage.
In the case of a mid-term marriage, defined as between 11 and 20 years, no presumption in favor of either party exists. A party seeking alimony must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that alimony should be awarded.
Following a long-term marriage, which is longer than 20 years, a rebuttable presumption in favor of awarding alimony exists. The party that would be required to pay alimony must demonstrate with clear and convincing evidence that alimony is not needed.
Additional language in the bill addresses retirement of a potential payor.
Under SB 718, if a party qualifies for retirement before a dissolution of marriage is filed, clear and convincing evidence that a person has means to pay alimony is required for an award.
In several committee meetings, former spouses testified that under the current system their alimony obligation made it difficult to retire when they reached retirement age.
In addition to the changes the bill makes to the way alimony is awarded, provisions concerning child custody have also been met with controversy.
The proposed legislation mandates the courts begin with the assumption of 50/50 equal time-sharing between divorced parents.
“We solicited the advice of mental health specialists who universally agreed that a time-sharing schedule for children is not something that fits into a one-size-fits-all package,” Porras said.
“We have child support guidelines under [F.S. §61.30]. Those were calculated after extensive research by [Florida State University] experts to determine what the guidelines should be and they’re reviewed every three or four years.”
Porras also expressed concern about the increase in legislation the bill will cause because it is retroactive.
As evidence, she said family lawyers are already receiving calls from divorced parents looking to modify agreements to equal time-sharing “because it comes with a lower child support number.”