Divorce Court Revisions Are Afoot

Article excerpt

GOING TO THE GOVERNOR: Bills elements include an end to permanent alimony

TALLAHASSEE

Dramatic changes are in store for the 80,000 Florida couples who get divorced each year.

The Florida Legislature has sent Gov. Rick Scott a bill (SB 318) that revamps state divorce and alimony laws, ending permanent alimony and reducing long-term alimony payments. The bill would also make it much harder to get alimony for marriages of less than 11 years.

Alimony caps based on the length of the marriage and a 50-50 child custody sharing standard are set for divorcing couples.

Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, the recently divorced lawmaker who has been working on the legislation for the last two years, said current divorce law too often leads to "financially and emotionally exhausting litigation."

The bill, passed by the House in 85-31 vote Thursday, "promotes predictability," Workman said. "No more will gamesmanship be the norm but fairness, transparency and certainty will prevail."

Critics, including the family law section of the Florida Bar Association, say the measure, which would take effect July 1, goes too far. The harshest criticism is aimed at a provision that would let some spouses return to court to retroactively change their alimony payments.

The family law attorneys are lobbying Scott -- who hasn't stated a position on the issue -- to veto the bill.

In Thursday's debate in the House, critics raised the issue of retroactivity, while also characterizing the legislation as being particularly harmful to women.

Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, likened the broad changes in the divorce laws to "a jackhammer approach." Berman, who is also an attorney, said the ability to change previous alimony agreements under the bills retroactivity provision would "disrupt our constituents' lives."

She said divorced spouses who have used the reliability of the alimony payments to get mortgages or car loans "will have their lives thrown upside down" by the changes.

Berman also said the impact might be hardest on older divorced women, saying the Palm Beach County homeless shelter told her one of its largest groups is divorced women in their 50s.

"I shudder to think what this bill will do," Berman said.

But the measure, which drew bipartisan support in the House and in an earlier 29-11 vote in the Senate, has plenty of supporters who have defended it as bringing more equality and fairness to an outdated system.

Rep. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City, said she supported the bill because she has a son and daughter and would want to see them treated equally under the law. Porter said the alimony laws shouldn't be designed to find that the husband "is always in the wrong and needs to pay for 20 or 30 years on a 13-year marriage."

"This isn't about women's rights," she said. "Thank you very much, I can take care of myself."

Porter said if a woman is in a 40-year marriage and has stayed in the home as part of an agreement with her husband, then a longer period of alimony could be considered. …