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Family Law Section advocates for alimony bill veto

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Florida CapitolLegislative leaders have yet to deliver a sweeping alimony reform measure to Gov. Ron DeSantis, and family law practitioners say the delay is contributing to a backlog of cases.

The House voted 74-42 on March 9 to approve SB 1796 by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, over the vehement objection of the Family Law Section and some children’s advocates.

“Right now, we are working day in and day out to hopefully encourage the governor to veto SB 1796 because of the retroactivity in the bill,” said Family Law Section Chair-elect Philip Wartenberg.

(The Family Law Section is advocating for a veto of this legislation on its own behalf. Under Bar policies, sections, which have voluntary membership and dues payments, are given wide latitude on subjects they wish to lobby and sections must also make it clear they are representing only themselves and not the Bar as a whole.)

The measure would abolish permanent alimony, give ex-spouses who pay alimony a “pathway to retirement,” and create a legal presumption for the equal time sharing of children.

Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, R-Ft. Myers and an attorney, sponsored the House companion, HB 1395.

Persons-Mulicka insisted the measure is not retroactive and includes safeguards that will exempt disabled alimony recipients and keep others from falling into poverty.

“This bill is the fairest and most equitable alimony reform bill that has been presented to this Legislature,” Persons-Mulicka said. “It balances the goal to protect those who need alimony most with the goal to reduce the need for exhaustive and costly litigation.”

Wartenberg, a 13th Circuit general magistrate, strongly disagrees. He calls the measure “bad for the system, bad for families, and absolutely retroactive.”

“The reality is this, the opponents pushing this issue want to undo their previously settled divorce cases, and they want to go back in time and say an agreement we made years ago is now void,” Wartenberg said. “Instead of going back to court and asking for a modification or for a judge to consider new circumstances, whatever they may be, they just want the Legislature to undo it all.”

A similar reform bill stalled last year when the Senate objected to the equal time-sharing provision.

House opponents warned that pro se litigants would be unable to overcome the presumption. Other critics warned that it would leave a parent with an abusive partner no choice but to launch a bitter custody battle.

Family Law Section Chair Heather Apicella devotes most of her column in the latest edition of “Commentator,” the section newsletter, to the bill.

“The topic on most minds throughout this state is the status of the ‘alimony bill’ (SB 1792/HB 1395),” Apicella wrote. “The Family Law Section was (and remains) strongly opposed to the changes affecting critical portions of Chapter 61, specifically due to the serious impact which the bill has on our most vulnerable citizens.”

Family Law Section leaders and the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers negotiated with legislative reformers for months to hammer out a compromise, Apicella said.

“Unfortunately, our efforts were halted when it became apparent that the negotiations were failing and not met with the same good-faith intentions that the Family Law Section and AAML were putting forth,” Apicella wrote.

The long wait for lawmakers to deliver the bill to DeSantis is beginning to take a toll, Wartenberg said.

“Another issue we are hearing about from our section members is how the uncertainty right now is impacting many pending cases and causing a backlog,” he said.

It remains unclear whether DeSantis will sign the bill, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.

In 2016, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed an alimony reform measure that contained an equal time-sharing provision. In his veto message, Scott wrote that the provision would “put the wants of a parent ahead of a child’s best interest.”

Four years before that, Scott vetoed another alimony reform measure, citing concerns about retroactivity and its impact on alimony recipients.

The delay has given opponents plenty of time to let DeSantis know how they feel, Wartenberg said.

“Thousands of Floridians have written and called the governor asking him not to sign this bill into law,” Wartenberg said. “Those efforts will continue until the law is either signed or, hopefully, vetoed.”

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