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Lawmakers approve bill to do away with permanent alimony

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Sen. Joe Gruters

Sen. Joe Gruters

The Legislature has agreed to abolish permanent alimony, give ex-spouses who pay alimony a “pathway to retirement,” and create a legal presumption that equal time sharing is in a child’s best interest.

The House voted 74-42 on March 9 to approve SB 1796 by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota. Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, R-Ft. Myers, sponsored the House companion, HB 1935.

“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 the most, with the goal to reduce the need for exhaustive and costly litigation.”

Critics, including the Family Law Section, warn the measure will upend existing agreements, spark bitter custody battles, and put children at risk.

“Our big concern is that this bill is going to upend the well-founded expectations that people have who are receiving alimony pursuant to an existing contract,” said section Chair-elect Philip S. Wartenberg, a 13th Circuit general magistrate assigned to the Family Law Division.

By eliminating permanent alimony, the bill emphasizes bridge-the-gap, rehabilitative, and durational alimony.

It would limit rehabilitative alimony to five years and bar the awarding of durational alimony for marriages shorter than three years.

Durational alimony would be awarded for half the length of marriages that last between three and 10 years, 60% of the length of marriages of between 10 and 20 years, and 75% of marriages that lasted 20 years or more.

Durational alimony payments would be limited to the recipients “reasonable needs” or 34% of the difference in incomes, whichever is less.

The measure would create a “wind-down” period that would, in certain circumstances, permit a retiring ex-spouse, after providing formal notice, to reduce alimony payments 25% per year over four years.

Safeguards would protect disabled recipients, or recipients who are the full-time caregiver of a disabled child common to both parties.

Persons-Mulicka stressed that a recipient’s income would not be permitted to fall below 130% of the federal poverty level — about $17,500 a year — or leave the recipient unable to afford “the basic needs of life.”

The measure would create a rebuttable presumption that equal time sharing is in the best interest of children. Under the measure, permanently moving within 50 miles of a child’s residence would be considered a substantial change of circumstance.

After spending the summer negotiating with the reformers, the Family Law Section was prepared to endorse abolishing permanent alimony, Wartenberg said.

“That was a substantial change from where we’ve been in the past,” he said.

But the Senate bill, which did not contain an equal time sharing provision, was amended to conform it to the House version.

“With respect to the retirement aspects, we just cannot support where the bill ended up,” Wartenberg said. “It was really their language, we believe it to be poorly written, and again, it creates serious due-process issues with regard to how an obligor can seek that modification.”

Persons-Mulicka said the measure does not impact “non-modifiable” agreements, and “non-modifiable portions of agreements,” and was reviewed by several staff attorneys.

“This is not retroactive, and this is not unconstitutional,” she said.

The equal time sharing provision stalled a similar bill in the Senate last session and sparked the most concern on the House floor.

Emily Slosberg-King, D-Delray Beach, and a family law practitioner, said the equal-time sharing provision would create too great of a procedural barrier for pro se litigants to overcome.

“A 50-50 time-share should not be considered in every case,” she said. “When there is an addicted parent, and a non-addicted parent, they should not equal time share.”

But Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, and an attorney, said reforms are needed to provide more certainty, and to discourage divorcing couples from going to court.

“Appellate courts are desperately asking the Legislature step up and do something,” he said. “They’re tired of seeing desperate couples burn down their assets because of petty disputes.”

Andrade said the measure would benefit children by making it easier for a non-custodial parent to spend more time with a child.

Andrade noted that House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater, has emphasized strengthening fatherhood.

“We’ve spent two sessions now reiterating how important a father is to a child’s life,” Andrade said. “Studies prove a father’s time in that child’s life is critically important.”

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.”

Scott also vetoed a 2012 alimony reform measure, citing concerns about retroactivity and its potential impact on recipients.

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