By Gary Blankenship
A bill that ends permanent alimony for future divorces and makes most other alimony awards durational has passed a Florida House subcommittee.
HB 943 cleared the House Civil Justice Subcommittee on March 17, the latest in efforts that began in 2010 to overhaul alimony laws and generally make them easier on those paying long-term and permanent alimony. The latest bill won the support of the Bar’s Family Law Section, which negotiated for months with Family Law Reform (formerly Florida Alimony Reform) and bill sponsors Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, and Rep. Coleen Burton, R-Lakeland.
Burton said it would end disparate results in similar cases around the state and also reduce litigation related to divorce and alimony.
“This has been a well-studied, well-thought out bill,” she said. “In the state of Florida, if a family goes through the unfortunate circumstances of divorce, it is emotionally taxing, it is financially devastating in some cases. This bill helps soften that blow. What we can do as a state and as a Legislature is, regardless of where [divorcing couples] are in the state of Florida, they can expect a similar result.”
Thomas Sasser, representing the section, said the bill has compromises “on a matter that has been contentious for five years. . . . It’s a compromise, it seeks balance, there’s still work to be done. We continue to work with the sponsors, we continue to work with the senators. We would like to see this move forward, we worked very hard on it.”
The bill does away with designations for short-term marriages (up to seven years), medium-term marriages (seven to 17 years) and long-term marriages (more than 17 years) and instead sets two formulas for determining the lower and upper ranges of alimony payments and for the duration of alimony.
Marriages up to 20 years should have alimony closer to the lower alimony formula while longer marriages should be closer to the upper range, according to the bill. The final decision would be the judge’s. There would be a presumption that marriages up to two years would not result in any alimony.
The bill would do away with permanent alimony, according to the staff analysis of the bill, and basically make the existing bridge, most temporary, rehabilitative, and durational alimony into durational alimony. The lower end of alimony would be 0.0125 multiplied by the years of marriage with that result multiplied by the monthly income difference between the paying and the receiving spouse. The upper end would use a multiplier of 0.020.
The duration of the alimony, under the bill, would be between one-quarter to three-fourths of the length of the marriage. Temporary alimony would be allowed in some cases.
The bill also allows the parties to seek adjustments in alimony if there’s an income change of 10 percent or more. Generally, a paying spouse could seek a reduction if the receiving spouse enters into a “supportive” relationship or gets a higher paying job. The paying spouse could not be required to pay more, though, if he or she remarries and the successor spouse has an income or if the paying spouse takes a second job to earn more income.
Sasser said that reflects “that the law recognizes now you have a duty to support yourself.” And, he said, while a higher income by the paying spouse could trigger higher child support payments, that doesn’t necessarily apply to alimony. “Children share in the good fortune of parents,” Sasser said. “Alimony is different.”
The bill also specifies that the total paid for both child support and alimony may not exceed 55 percent of the net income of the paying spouse, and requires the court to adjust the child support if that amount is exceeded.
In cases that have been pending for more than two years, the bill allows a party to ask the judge to expedite the case, although the staff analysis warned this could be seen as interfering with the Supreme Court’s prerogative to set procedural rules for the courts.
The bill in many ways is less drastic than one that passed the Legislature in 2013 and that was opposed by the Family Law Section. That measure set a rebuttable presumption of no alimony for marriages up to 11 years and let the parties try to prove whether it was needed in marriages lasting between 11 and 20 years. That bill was also retroactive to all preceding divorce settlements, which led Gov. Rick Scott to veto the bill, saying it would disrupt many settled divorce agreements and could have unfair and unanticipated results.
The new bill avoids that, specifying, according to the staff analysis, “The revisions made by the bill, with the exception of revisions related to the calculation of the duration of an alimony award, apply to all petitions for modification of alimony pending on October 1, 2015, and to all petitions for modification of alimony filed on or after October 1, 2015. The changes in current law do not constitute a substantial change in circumstances for purposes of modifying an alimony award and may not serve as the sole basis to seek modification of an alimony award made before October 1, 2015.”
The subcommittee made one change to the bill, approving an amendment by Rep. George R. Moraitis, Jr., R-Ft. Lauderdale, that adultery by a spouse can be considered by the judge in awarding alimony.
“Our laws need to reflect our sense of justice,” he said. “If you’ve been unfaithful, should you be entitled to an award of alimony? I would say no.”
Rep. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, voted against the bill, calling it a “one size fits all” measure that “doesn’t look at equity or justice.”
Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Opa Locka, also opposed the bill, saying the alimony modifications provisions favored payors over recipients and that the limit on total alimony and child support payments might prove detrimental to children receiving child support.
“I think there will be unintended consequences,” she said. “I don’t think it would decrease litigation, I think it would increase litigation.”
The final vote on the bill was 9-4. It now goes to the full Judiciary Committee and then if it passes there to the House floor.
A similar bill, SB 1248, by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, has been filed in the Senate and referred to the Judiciary Committee, Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, and Appropriations Committee. As this News went to press, it had not been considered by the Judiciary Committee.