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Bill overhauling alimony, child custody hits House floor

The Florida House of Representatives on Monday began considering a bill to overhaul the state’s alimony and child custody laws.

The Florida Senate already has approved the measure (SB 668), which changes the way judges may award spousal support with an eye on preventing what’s been derided by critics as “forever alimony” awards.

State Rep. Colleen Burton, the Lakeland Republican who sponsored the House version, took pointed questions on the bill from Democrats concerned that it was slanted against women.

Among other things, the bill allows the court to modify alimony payments if the person paying has a substantial “change in circumstances,” including unemployment or retirement.

For years, former spouses who wrote the checks said permanent alimony wasn’t fair to them. Their exes shot back that they shouldn’t be penalized for having trouble re-entering the workplace after staying home to raise the couple’s children.

At one point, Burton corrected herself while answering a question when she said “… when a husband and a wife – or two spouses, I should say,” a nod to same-sex marriages.

The bill provides guidelines for how to award alimony, but Burton said, “Judges still have the last say. If they go outside the guidelines, we just ask them to prepare written findings.”

One guideline is that “for marriages of two years or less, there is a rebuttable presumption that no alimony shall be awarded.”

Another is “whether a party could become better able to support himself or herself and reduce the need for alimony by pursuing additional educational or vocational training.”

Burton also explained that judges can still be swayed by evidence that one spouse stayed home for years to raise children and tend to the home if both spouses agreed to it.

In addition to changing with alimony language, the bill also calls on judges to begin with the “premise” that children should spend equal time with each parent when awarding child custody.

State Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican, had amended the Senate bill to include that “equal footing” language; he moved a separate bill on child time-sharing this session that passed the Senate but its companion bill was never heard in the House.

The bill next must be debated and voted on. It was not amended on the floor.

Written By

Jim Rosica is the Tallahassee-based Senior Editor for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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