By Gary Blankenship
It’s safe to say that Family Law Section Chair David Manz is not a favorite of the group Florida Alimony Reform.
The section, led by Manz, battled FAR, headed by Alan Frischer (who is not a member of The Florida Bar), earlier this year over proposed changes in Florida alimony laws. Although the House passed a FAR-supported bill, the issue died when it failed to reach the Senate floor.
Both sides are gearing up for the 2013 session, with FAR promising to bring back its push to end permanent alimony and make other changes. It is also using its website to criticize the section and Manz.
“Our most powerful adversaries are members of The Florida Bar’s . . . Family Law Section, with whom we negotiated over the bills as they moved through the House and Senate. The group opposed reform, posted a petition on their website that spelled out the individual provisions they opposed, including any change to ‘permanent’ alimony, and lobbied hard to convince legislators that reform was not necessary,” said the FAR website.
It went on to note that Manz was quoted in The New York Times as saying the bill proponents were “a very vocal, persuasive minority.”
“That’s right!” the website said. “We’re vocal because permanent alimony is wrong and destructive to families. We’re persuasive because we’re speaking from our devastating personal experience. And we may be a minority in terms of population, but each of our divorces affects dozens of family members across generations — our children, grandchildren, siblings, even our parents.”
Another post on the site criticized Manz and an op-ed piece he wrote which was published in a Florida newspaper.
“You get a sense of the struggle and the polarization of the groups,” Manz said dryly. “We feel it’s a vested interest issue. It’s a thinly disguised attempt to modify alimony . . . when what it really is is disgruntled payors who are paying permanent alimony who want to stop paying it.”
He said the section met and worked with FAR before and during the session, but ultimately was unable to reach an agreement. FAR argues its proposals would lead to more fairness, less litigation, and less need for lawyers among divorcing couples. Manz said it would have the opposite effect, including increasing litigation because of uncertainties in the proposed law. He also said the group misrepresents the size and scope of problems with the divorce laws.
For example, FAR calls for an end to permanent alimony in all but a few exceptional cases. According to the organization, that allows “each party of the divorce to move on with independent lives.”
But Manz said permanent alimony is not a factor in most divorces now. Under state law, marriages up to seven years are considered short-term and, absent special circumstances, have no more than short-term alimony. Marriages from seven to 17 years are considered of moderate duration and marriages over 17 years are considered marriages of long duration. Permanent alimony is the presumption only in long-term marriages, he said.
Durational alimony is most likely for moderate duration marriages and may not exceed the length of the marriage, and the term may not be extended beyond that originally set by the court. FAR favors making durational and/or rehabilitative alimony the presumption in all cases, but Manz said the section does not support that for long-term marriages.
“The classic case is a wife in a 30-year marriage, where the wife stayed home with the kids and may have a disability. Those cases exist, every day, day in and day out,” Manz said. “What the law says is she’s entitled to roughly the lifestyle she had during the marriage.”
Durational or rehabilitative alimony is insufficient, he said, because “she could have had a career [but for the marriage], but now in her early 50s or mid-50s, she’s out of the workplace in terms of a long-term career.”
One of the FAR criticisms is that payors of alimony can’t change their payments if they lose their jobs or otherwise have a reduction of income. But Manz says that’s not the case.
“There’s abundant case law that says if your circumstances change for a year, if there’s an establishment of a substantial change of circumstances for a year, they are entitled to an alimony modification,” he said. “There are modifications that are successful every day.”
And that applies to retirement, which contradicts a FAR claim that payers have difficulty reducing payments when they retire, even if they are in their 70s and 80s and the recipient spouse earns more money.
The controlling precedent, Manz said, is the Pimm case. “The law says if in your business you’ve reached the age that is typical for retirement, you are allowed to modify or terminate your alimony,” he said. “When you reach the age when people typically retire, you’re allowed to retire.”
The FAR website also includes complaints that alimony continues even when the recipient has remarried or entered a new relationship that provided economic security. But Manz said Florida law already allows for alimony modification when the recipient spouse enters a “supportive” relationship that alters his or her standard of living.
“There was a law drafted several years ago that provides if you’re in a supportive relationship, your alimony has to be modified,” Manz explained. “If the spouse gets $2,000 a month from a supportive relationship and the alimony is $2,000 a month, the alimony would be ended.”
However, he added there is a glitch in that law that the section does support correcting. Manz said income from a supportive relationship that begins after a divorce is final is subject to modification. However, if the relationship began after separation but before the divorce is final, the income is not factored into alimony, and the section does favor changing that practice.
The critics also claim that if an alimony payor remarries or enters a new relationship, his or her partner’s income could be used to raise alimony payments. But Manz said the second partner’s assets can’t be used to change the alimony of the first spouse, although if the payor’s needs are reduced, that could affect the alimony.
FAR also doesn’t acknowledge changes in the law, he said. One article written by a FAR co-director, asserts, “Florida’s alimony laws were written back in the day — when women had little economic power, when divorce was uncommon, and cohabiting was scandalous. Those days are long gone, but the old-fashioned alimony laws — favoring permanent alimony, until death — linger on.”
“That’s really a false argument,” Manz said. He noted the laws — with the support of the section — have been continuously updated, including two major changes in the past three years. That includes adding durational alimony for marriages that last seven to 17 years.
“What they also fail to say is the statute is construed according to case law, so as the case law changes the statute changes,” he added.
Critics, Manz said, don’t acknowledge underlying factors of the existing law. That includes that alimony won’t be awarded unless a court finds there is both a need by one spouse and an ability to pay by the other spouse. Absent exceptional finding by a judge or agreement by the parties, alimony cannot leave the payor with significantly less income than the recipient.
The two sides do agree the battle isn’t over. Manz said he expects more bills to be introduced next year, and the section is already preparing for that, including possibly hiring a PR firm to counter the aggressive campaign in the press by FAR and its supporters.