By Megan E. Davis
Two pieces of legislation aimed at reforming the way alimony is awarded in Florida courts are poised for debate on the Senate and House floors, despite spurring heated debate at every committee stop along the way in both chambers.
SB 718 and the similarly worded HB 231 both eliminate permanent alimony and introduce new guidelines into the process of awarding any type of alimony.
While The Florida Bar’s Family Law Section continues to oppose the bills, section representatives say recent amendments have improved both measures.
An amendment to SB 718 approved by the Senate Committee on Rules lowers the legal threshold for a judge to override the bill’s presumption that the maximum length of award for durational alimony be no more than half of the length of a marriage.
Judges may now override guidelines set forth in the bill when a “preponderance of the evidence” shows circumstances warrant a longer award.
The proposed legislation was also amended to lower the threshold for receiving rehabilitative or bridge-the-gap alimony to “preponderance of the evidence,” from the much higher “clear and convincing evidence” standard originally included in the bill.
HB 231 was similarly amended by the House Judiciary Committee to require a party show “circumstances” rather than “exceptional circumstances” warrant a longer award of durational alimony.
Before the Senate Committee on Rules approved SB 718, Family Law Section Chair Carin M. Porras expressed concern about a provision in the bill that presumes 50-50 equal time-sharing in deciding child custody.
“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.”
In a statement released after SB 718 gained approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee, allowing it to move to the Committee on Rules for consideration, Porras highlighted additional reasons for the Family Law Section’s opposition.
“SB 718 is clearly aimed at protecting male payors of alimony,” Porras 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 the various committee meetings, Family Law Section representatives, lawmakers, and private 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.
“I think it’s designed to make support needed by either men or women difficult to get,” said Sen. Arthenia L. Joyner, D-Tampa, when the Senate bill was taken up by the Judiciary Committee.
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.
“You’ve heard two things here today,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, chair of the Judiciary Committee. “You heard from a doctor who said it cost him $70,000 and six years to get what was just and due him in the courts and you heard a lawyer representing the Family Law Section say 90 to 95 percent of cases result in a marriage settlement agreement, which means they never get to a judge. They never get to a judge because people can’t afford your fees, sir. What you’re arguing for in my opinion is nothing more than a failed system that continues to drag these things through a process that fails families.”
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who introduced SB 718, agreed, saying judicial discretion is retained to protect women and the new legislation is needed to introduce fairness and predictability into the process.
“It can’t just be wild, wild West, I don’t like you, I don’t like her, whatever, and have a ruling,” she said.