Alimony bill advances in the House
A proposal to eliminate what sponsors call “permanent alimony” is advancing in the Legislature, despite bipartisan concerns and over the opposition of the Bar’s Family Law Section.
The House Justice Appropriations Committee voted 7-4 on February 11 to advance HB 843 by Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola.
Among other things, the measure would prioritize limited “bridge-the-gap,” “rehabilitation,” and “maintenance” alimony over traditional long-term alimony — and establish a 50-50 time-sharing standard for divorcing parents.
Andrade, an attorney, said one of his primary goals is to change an existing system of jurisprudence that “incentivizes angry, divorcing spouses to waste their net worth on litigation,” and “disincentivizes divorcing spouses from entering into new relationships.”
“What this is designed to do is to give couples who are divorcing the opportunity to assess, and actually know what will occur, if they take their cases to litigation,” Andrade said.
A handful of witnesses, some of them tearful, spoke for and against the measure. Proponents said their long-term alimony obligation has ruined them financially, with some forced to work years beyond retirement despite serious injury.
Others, including one witness who used a wheelchair, said the loss of long-term alimony would leave them homeless or facing serious illness without a means to pay medical bills.
Democratic committee members echoed the concerns of alimony recipients, but at least one influential Republican also expressed reservations. Committee Chair Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville, voted against the measure.
“I have some concerns about where it could leave obligees,” Yarborough said, referring to long-term alimony recipients who are disabled. “I realize it’s a work in progress.”
Rep. Mike Gottlieb, D-Plantation, said he is concerned the 50-50 time-share component would result in children being placed with abusive parents.
Gottlieb read from an editorial written by Amy Hamlin, an Altamonte Springs attorney who chairs the 4,000-member Family Law Section.
“They represent men and women, and the feeling is the bill would make a negative and far-reaching change,” Gottlieb said. “It’s too far-reaching, it would be throwing the baby out with the bath water.”
Andrade stressed that the bill would only create a legal presumption for a 50-50 time share, and that parties could petition the court to change that under certain circumstances.
But Kristin Adamson, past president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Florida Chapter, said the presumption would pose a significant barrier.
“As lawyers, we all know that once you create a presumption, it’s very hard to back down on that issue,” Adamson said. “You’re putting the parents’ interests above the interests of the children.”
Andrade said the 50-50 time-share presumption would prevent an angry spouse from threatening the other with loss of access to a son or daughter.
“A judge is not omniscient to know which parent cares the most about their child,” Andrade said. “The intent behind this presumption…is to de-weaponize children.”
Gottlieb said he was also worried that single parents who maintain custody of a disabled child would lose a vital source of revenue if long-term alimony was eliminated.
Andrade acknowledged the bill does not address the issue. But he said disabled children are protected by a Florida statute.
“It says that the right for child support is not the former spouse’s, it is the child’s, and that child who is disabled carries that right forward, from both parents, for the rest of their life,” Andrade said.
Other critics said they were worried the bill would create a rush to modify long-term support arrangements and clog already crowded court calendars.
But Andrade cited a 1992 Florida Supreme Court case, Pimm v. Pimm, 601 So. 2d 534 (1992), in which justices ruled, among other things, that a post-dissolution of marriage retirement could be considered a factor in modifying alimony or support payments.
“There will be lifetime alimony payments that over time, will end, if awarded previously,” Andrade acknowledged. “But the Supreme Court in Pimm v. Pimm already allows people to terminate lifetime alimony when they retire.”
HB 843 cleared its first House committee in January. A companion measure, SB 1832 by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, has yet to be heard. At this point in session, most committees have finished their work, and the bill’s chances appear slim.
Alimony has been a hot-button issue in the Legislature for the past several years. In 2016, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a similar alimony reform measure, saying he feared it would harm children.