TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/ NSF) — Two previously opposing sides have joined forces for a major overhaul of Florida’s alimony laws.READ MORE: Officials Worry Large Crowds Will Leave Mess Behind After Memorial Day Weekend
The overhaul would do away with permanent alimony and would use formulas to determine payment amounts based on the lengths of marriage and the combined earnings of couples.
The House Civil Justice Subcommittee gave a first nod to the measure (HB 943) in a party-line vote Tuesday, with Democrats skeptical about the proposal they say favors breadwinners.
Testimony on the measure was a sharp departure from debate over a hotly contested version of an alimony rewrite vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott two years ago that, unlike the current proposal, would have applied retroactively.
“It is a compromise. It seeks balance,” said West Palm Beach lawyer Tom Sasser, who helped craft the measure and represents the Florida Bar Family Law Section, which vigorously fought the previous proposal. “This is the time to make this go forward and to alter the way we deal with alimony and the landscape of alimony in Florida.”
House Rules Chairman Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, spent the better part of a year working out a deal between Sasser and Family Law Reform, an organization representing alimony payers who’ve fought for five years to get the law changed.
The group’s founder Alan Frisher called the proposal a “step in the right direction toward balanced compromise.”
Frisher said the state’s current alimony law “perpetuates an entitlement attitude that should not be allowed” and “is abusive to both the payer and the payee.”
This year’s proposal, sponsored by freshman Republican Rep. Colleen Burton of Lakeland, would also establish a formula to determine how long ex-spouses can receive alimony. Unlike the measure Scott red-lined, the current plan would give judges discretion to veer from the formulas for payments or durations under certain conditions.
The measure “streamlines, as much as possible, a difficult process for any family that’s going through a divorce,” Burton told the panel, and helps divorcing spouses predict what to expect, “all the while, all the while, leaving the final determination in the hands of a judge.”
The measure would eliminate current bridge-the-gap, rehabilitative, durational and permanent types of alimony but not affect temporary alimony. It would also change what are now considered short-term, mid-term and long-term marriages. Under the new plan, the category of mid-term marriages would be eliminated and long-term marriages, now defined as 17 years or longer, would apply to unions of 20 years or more.
The formula for the duration of alimony payments is based on the number of years of marriage, while the amount of the payments relies on a couple’s gross income — the higher earner’s salary minus the earnings of the spouse seeking alimony — and sets the length of time for alimony payments.
As an example of how the formula would apply to short-term marriages, or those less than 20 years, payments in a 10-year marriage in which the combined earnings of the couple are $100,000 would be $1,041.67 per month.READ MORE: Death Of Child Pulled From Homestead Pond Under Investigation
As an example of how the formula would work for marriages of 20 years or longer, payments in a 20-year marriage in which the gross income was $100,000 would come to $3,333.33 per month.
An alimony recipient who has been married for less than 20 years would be eligible to receive payments for .25 times the number of years of marriage. For example, a spouse who had been married for 10 years would be able to receive alimony for 2.5 years. Alimony recipients who had been married for 20 years or longer would be eligible for .75 times the number of years of the marriage, meaning someone divorcing after 20 years would be eligible to receive alimony for 15 years.
The proposal would affect alimony modifications already in the pipeline or new alimony.
The National Organization for Women opposed the measure two years ago, and the group’s Florida lobbyist, Barbara DeVane, objected to the current proposal Tuesday.
“It’s like déjà vu. Over and over we have to come forth and oppose these changes in the alimony law to try to protect women. I’m always especially concerned about older women who get married, stay home, raise children, get older … and the husband decides to trade her in for a younger model, and on and on and on,” DeVane said. “I know this is a different bill from two sessions ago. But it’s still a bad bill.”
The proposal would also allow someone paying alimony to ask for a reduction if an ex-spouse’s income increases by 10 percent. But someone receiving alimony would not be able to seek an increase in payments unless the payer was unemployed or underemployed at the time the alimony was set.
The proposal would also require alimony payments to stop when a paying ex-spouse reaches the federal retirement age, or when an alimony recipient has a “supportive relationship” even if he or she is not living with the paramour.
The bill’s goal “is to reduce litigation that inflicts both (an) economic and emotional toll on spouses and their families who are going through a divorce and seeking alimony,” Burton told the panel.
But two Democratic lawyers on the committee weren’t satisfied with Burton’s changes.
“In a nutshell, I think it’s one-sided and unfairly benefits the payer at this point,” Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, said.
Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, said divorces should be focused on what’s best for children and families. The measure doesn’t do that, Berman said.
“This is a one-size-fits-all bill. It doesn’t look at equity and justice,” Berman said. “We’ve taken these percentages for duration and amount and just pulled them out of the air.”
The proposal has one more committee stop before heading to the House floor for a full vote. The Senate version has not yet been vetted by any committees.MORE NEWS: Florida Law Enforcement Officials Reassure Parents On Potential School Shooter Threat
(The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.)