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Bill ending lifetime alimony heads to governor’s desk

TALLAHASSEE —

A bill headed to Gov. Rick Scott for signing would make Florida the fifth state in the nation to do away with permanent alimony and with any alimony in marriages less than 11 years long.

The Florida House passed the proposal by an 85-31 vote Thursday afternoon, after an emotionally charged debate with supporters saying the new guidelines would be better for children of divorced couples and fairer for both men and women. The Senate previously approved it 29-11.

The law would:

  • Eliminate alimony for people married less than 11 years.
  • Generally prevent alimony payments from lasting longer than one-half the length of the marriage.
  •  

    Set a formula for alimony payments based on the income of the payer and the length of the marriage.

  •  

    Allow ex-spouses who retire to end or reduce alimony.

  •  

    Give judges now responsible for determining the amount of alimony discretion only in special circumstances.

 

Florida Department of Health data for the last five years show that marriages that end in divorce last on average about 10 years, meaning that the average divorced spouse in Florida would no longer be eligible for alimony.

The bill also would change custody rules for children in divorced families.

Critics called the changes problematic for older women and an anti-family disincentive for parents to stay home to raise their children.

Under the proposal, children would automatically split their time equally with both parents. Current law leaves it up to a judge to decide about “time-sharing” of children. Judges could also modify that arrangement under certain circumstances.

The revamp will put Florida’s divorce laws more in line with modern society, the bill’s sponsor Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, said.

“Alimony laws in general have been written for the ‘Leave it to Beaver’ mentality, that women are incapable of having their own careers, that they stay at home, cook dinner, get pregnant and then the man 10 years later finds a secretary, moves out and leaves them helpless. The laws haven’t changed since roles have changed,” said Workman, who is divorced and was entitled to alimony but turned it down.

The measure would also apply retroactively and could end permanent alimony in marriages that lasted less than 15 years, Workman said.

That provision could force older spouses who never worked and rely on alimony to cover mortgage payments or other monthly obligations to “have their lives turned upside down,” argued Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana.

“The Palm Beach County homeless shelter told me that one of their largest constituencies is divorced women in their 50s. I shudder to think what this bill will do,” Berman, a lawyer, argued during debate on the measure before the vote in favor. The vote was split along party lines, with 11 Democrats joining the GOP majority and three Republicans opposed.

Scott’s office said the governor is reviewing the measure, and dueling online petition drives are urging Scott to either sign the bill or veto it.

Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, called the plan “the most gender-equalizing piece of legislation that we have seen all session.”

And Democrat Katie Edwards of Tampa, who joined a host of Republican women who spoke in favor of the bill, said she hoped the guidelines would help children avoid taking sides in “a very nasty and public divorce” like she was forced to as a youngster.

“People fall out of love. That’s reality. We have to plan for that. If you want to e-mail me and tell me I’m anti-woman, fine,” Edwards said.

Rep. Jared Evan Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, said that permanent alimony can foster hostility between couples who’ve split and that children suffer. He said the relationship between his parents soured after a bitter divorce during the decade his mother received alimony but that circumstances turned around once the payment ended.

“This debate we’re having now is about money. It’s not about family. We never spent time as a family when that financial relationship was in place. It was only after the financial relationship ended that my family was able to move on and heal,” he said.

But Rep. Cynthia Stafford, a lawyer who once represented domestic violence victims, called the plan too broad and said it was harsh for stay-at-home parents, who are usually women. Domestic violence victims often do not work because their abusers forbid it, Stafford said.

“This bill is harsh. It’s wrong. It’s anti-marriage. It’s anti-woman and it’s mean-spirited,” Stafford, D-Miami, said.

But Workman argued that the bill is “blind to the sex” of the spouse, will “serve as the basis of healing” for divorced families and provide certainty for divorcing couples.

“This bill is not anti-woman. It’s pro-family,” Workman said. “No more will we have one spouse able to hold a divorce over the other for extortion. No more will we have short-term marriages resulting in life-time dependency. No more will we have alimony used as a punitive weapon to punish one spouse over the other. No more will gamesmanship be the norm.”

But attorney Thomas Duggar, a member of The Florida Bar’s Family Law section, which opposes the bill, said the changes invalidate a spouse’s decision to stay at home to raise the family.

“He’s calling it pro-family. If your spouse stays home, and you have an affair with your secretary and you walk out, this will make it easier for you. How is that pro-family?” Duggar said.

The bill will force parties into court for nearly every alimony action, instead of settling, he said. “This will be known as the ‘Lawyers Relief Act’ for all the work we’ll get.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.Palm Beach Post researcher Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.

Source: PalmBeach Post

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