Big changes could be in store for couples who divorce under legislation now being considered by Florida lawmakers.
Measures to end permanent alimony and to push judges toward granting 50-50 time-sharing custody between parents are generating emotional arguments in legislative committee hearings.
An alimony reform bill passed its second committee in the House last week, and is ready for a vote on the House floor. A child custody bill has passed one committee in the Senate.
Backers say alimony reform is needed to provide consistency and end injustices to a spouse ordered to pay alimony for life. However, opponents including the National Organization for Women contend the changes would be unfair to women who give up careers to be stay-at-home home mothers.
Alimony reform advocates have pushed their cause in the Legislature since at least 2010.
Both sides have formed advocacy groups, and legislators in committee hearings are seeing bitter, emotional arguments including accusations of personal bias by lawmakers.
Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a 2013 bill that would have applied to divorces already granted. That retroactivity was later removed, but legislation covering both subjects died in the acrimonious 2015 session when Sen. Tom Lee couldn’t negotiate a compromise with House Rules Chairman Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, who opposed the child custody provisions.
Scott aides wouldn’t say whether he’ll sign a non-retroactive bill. However, Lee, R-Brandon, said talks with the governor’s staff indicate retroactivity was Scott’s biggest concern.
The Family Law Section of the Florida Bar backs the alimony provisions but not the custody provisions, said Chairman Tom Sasser of West Palm Beach.
Under the alimony bill, awards would be based on the incomes of spouses and would typically last from 25 percent to 75 percent of the marriage’s length. Alimony could be modified or ended when incomes change, a recipient enters a “supportive relationship,” or the payer retires. It also allows judges to deviate from the guidelines.
Sasser said the same set of facts will yield varying decisions by different family law judges.
The bill “takes away crazy results,” he said. “A judge can’t go rogue. If they don’t have a good reason they’ll get reversed.”
Alan Frisher, a Melbourne financial planner, formed Family Law Reform Inc. to push the change after his wife was awarded permanent alimony following a 13-year marriage.
“When you retire or lose a job or your income, you’re still obligated to keep paying,” he said.
Tarie McMillan, 65, a Fort Lauderdale jewelry saleswoman, said she’s been paying alimony to her ex-husband for 16 years after a 13-year marriage.
“He has chosen not to work,” she told a House committee last week. “He gets 65 percent of my earnings until he dies or I die.”
However, opponents say the proposed change would imperil stay-at-home mothers.
“If you’ve been out of the job market even a few years, it passes you by, and then what can you do in your late 40s or 50s?” said Barbara Devane, a lobbyist for the National Organization for Women.
Women who say they’re dependent on alimony testified against the bill.
“I’m on food stamps and he’s a multi-millionaire,” Shelly Moxon Lehman, 56, of Fort Lauderdale, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. She said she left a career as a flight attendant to raise three children, and now can’t return to it.
Breast-feeding mothers and women with special-needs children have opposed the 50-50 custody provision, saying it doesn’t take account of the need for a parent skilled and accustomed to dealing with a disabled child. However, Lee said the bill would allow a judge to take such circumstances into consideration.