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Judge Robert M. Evans: Enough is enough – Florida needs a neutral "Family Law Reform" task force

Another dangerously flawed “Family Law Reform” bill has been once again submitted in the Florida Legislature.

As this flawed legislation persists, Republican Sen. Tom Lee, who has been embroiled in his own past divorce and child support battles, has now introduced Family Law Reform bill SB 250. Many marginalized members of The Florida Bar are saying “enough is enough.”

It’s time for Gov. Rick Scott to do the right thing and form a neutral Family Law Reform Task Force to carefully study the issue and recommend fair and equitable changes to our family law statutes that if necessary, do not unjustly harm women and children.

The proposed “Alimony/Family Law Reform” bill contains as one of its greatest flaws an equal child timesharing provision that creates a legal presumption that equal time splitting between parents occur. Such a legal presumption can only be overcome if the parent challenging the presumption enters into a legal fight and proves with evidence that it is not in the best interests of the child to have equal time with both parents.

There’s no exception in the proposed statute regarding the age, physical or mental health of the child, or the physical or mental health of the parents. That will mean that unless a parent challenges the law, infants and toddlers would be exchanged between households on a nearly 50/50 basis. Alcoholic or abusive parents will be presumed to be entitled to 50/50 split timesharing with their children as well, including overnights.

It’s clear that the bill drafters had little knowledge of the developmental needs of children despite a plethora of psychological material available to them. An infant developmentally has no sense of time. Therefore, as the infant is removed from one home to another (absent a legal battle) the infant has no understanding of what is occurring. During the infant’s first years of development, an infant forms attachments. No child psychologist would ever make such a recommendation.

No other state in the country mandates equal timesharing. Unless parents come armed with an arsenal of dollars to mount a legal challenge, children regardless of their age will be shuttled between households under this bill. Simply put, this bill would set a dangerous national precedent if adopted into law.

With respect to alimony and child support, it’s likely that this legislation will create a new class of impoverished, especially among older women and traditional mothers. In the mathematical calculations posed to become law, it’s clear that the non- or lower-wage-earning spouse will be dramatically affected by the bill.  Rather than clearly defining what an alimony recipient would receive, the new law creates ranges based upon unsupported criteria. The drafters have no objective data to support the criteria used. They simply pulled numbers out of the sky with no objective basis to support how the alimony recipient will be able to survive on the arbitrary ranges they have proposed.

This bill further allows current alimony recipients, who in good faith entered into legal contracts providing for their support, to lose the support they negotiated and agreed upon.

If an alimony recipient’s income exceeds a mere 10 percent of that which existed or was assigned to them at the time that the alimony award was made, this fact alone constitutes a “significant change of circumstance” allowing the payor spouse to decrease the amount of support he or she is paying in alimony.  Incredibly, this applies even if the recipient’s 10 percent total income increase over time was simply from basic cost of living adjustments made to their minimum wage pay to help them keep up with inflation.

Numerous other harmful flaws in the bill exist, including the potential and questionably unconstitutional suspension of the recipient’s support upon merely the filing of a modification suit. Nevertheless, I hope that the points thus noted will encourage Floridians to read the bill and call our governor’s office to demand legislation that is studied, just and recommended by a neutral, independent expert task force.

Judge Robert M. Evans Esq. is retired from the bench of the 9th Judicial Circuit of Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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