The Senate Rules Committee was almost like a divorce court on March 21st, as the panel earnestly debated the merits of a bill that would eliminate permanent alimony from Florida law. Christine Jordan Sexton, Correspondent for the Jacksonville Business Journal, reports.
The bill (SB-718) places guidelines for alimony based on the length of marriages and changes the definition of short-term, moderate-term and long-term marriages. While it eliminates permanent alimony, it does keep intact the remaining three types of alimony: bridge-the-gap, rehabilitative and durational. It also makes clear that they can be combined only when the goal is to achieve rehabilitation.
“It’s pretty narrowed down from what it was before,” said bill sponsor Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.
The committee adopted a strike everything amendment that makes the bill closer in line to its House counterpart (HB-231) that is on the calendar and available for full House debate.
Before the final 12-2 vote in favor of the bill, the Senate committee heard heart-felt debate from supporters, many of them women, who said the bill frees them from financial obligations from former spouses who are weighing them down. That is in stark contrast to testimony provided in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week where all the supporters were men.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, noted that the women who testified in favor of the bill were an “aberration and not the norm. The majority of people paying alimony are still men.”
His statement answered a question that Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, asked of bill sponsor Stargel, who replied that she did not examine it from a gender issue.
Sobel said the current system of awarding alimony may be flawed but that she preferred to see the legislature study the issue. “I’m concerned about the unintended consequences of the bill,” she added.
In addition to addressing alimony, the legislation includes child custody issues.
The bill places in statute a presumption that equal time sharing with a minor child by both parents is presumed to be in the best interest of the child unless the court finds a parent is unfit. There are exceptions: if the court finds that the safety, well-being and health of the child would be endangered; clear and convincing evidence of extenuating circumstances which justify a departure; a parent is incarcerated; or distance between parental households is too great.
The provision was included by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who also has a stand-alone bill on the issue (SB-1466). The Family Law Section of the Florida Bar expressed concerns with the provision as did Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who has reservations with some provision of the bill including whether alimony should be based on net or gross income, said he was a strong supporter of the equal time sharing assumption.
Specifically, the bill changes the definitions of short-term, mid-term and long-term marriages by increasing the lengths of time married to less than 12 years, 12-20 years, and more than 20 years, respectively.
The legislation also places into law a rebuttable presumption against awarding alimony for a short-term marriage but does allow for exceptions. A spouse seeking bridge-the-gap or rehabilitative alimony may overcome the presumption by demonstrating by the “preponderance of the evidence” a need for the alimony. A party seeking durational alimony has a higher legal burden and must demonstrate need by clear and convincing evidence.
There is no presumption in favor for either party in mid-term marriages, alimony would be no greater than 30 percent of the obligor’s monthly income.
For long-term marriages there is a rebuttable presumption in favor of awarding alimony. To overcome the assumption a party must show clear and convincing evidence there is no need for alimony. Alimony may not exceed 33 percent of the obligor’s monthly income.
The measure would also amend law to allow non-modifiable marriage settlement agreements to be re-opened for short-term and mid-term marriages if they have been paying alimony for longer than 50 percent of the duration of the marriage. For long term marriages, settlement agreements could be re-opened only if there was misrepresentation.
Lynn Britt, a certified public accountant who has worked in family law for 25 years, testified that a family earning $150,000 annually has about a $10,000 monthly income. She said, under the provision of the bill, a stay-at-home spouse in a 12 year marriage would have access to $17,000 annually and the other party would maintain $95,000 annually.
“There’s no way a stay-at-home spouse can rehabilitate themselves on $17,000 a year,” she said.
Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, said the bills are too prescriptive.
“I don’t think we need these kinds of guidelines,” Margolis said. “I think there is too much detail. They don’t take into consideration the issues that come up in a marriage.”