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Alimony reform bill again stirs passions on both sides

The Florida Legislature is considering a bill that would end permanent alimony in most future divorces, setting up formulas that would set time limits and amounts based on the length of the marriage and the income difference between the spouses.

Sponsored by Rep. Colleen Burton and Sen. Kelli Stargel, both Polk County Republicans, the bill (HB 943) calls for payments that would last to between 25 and 75 percent of the length of the marriage. Judges could break the guidelines only in unusual cases, stating their reasons in writing.

The bill’s supporters want an end to lifetime payments, saying recipients use existing law to extort a meal ticket even when they could work. Opponents say ending permanent alimony would make it impossible for mothers to stay home with their children, for fear of being left destitute, and punish women who give up careers to keep a family functioning.

“You can find extremes on both sides,” exploited alimony payers and recipients not getting just compensation, Burton said. In many cases, she said, awards vary widely in cases with similar circumstances. “We’re attempting to provide direction to the courts and some parameters as to what people can expect.”

Stargel has pushed alimony changes for years, including a 2013 bill that Gov. Rick Scott vetoed because it retroactively applied to divorces that were already finalized. She said the new bill, which wouldn’t be retroactive, is a negotiated compromise and expects former opponents, including the Florida Bar’s family law section, to support it.

Fort Lauderdale family law attorney Roberta Stanley, who has worked on the new bill, said it “expands and puts more teeth” into statutes allowing alimony to decrease or end if the recipient remarries or enters a financially supportive relationship. It also provides that if either party unreasonably seeks or opposes a modification of alimony, the other party can be awarded attorney’s fees – an attempt to prevent using the cost of court action to force a former spouse into an unfair settlement.

But supporters of the current system are strongly opposing the measure.

Cynthia Mayer of Ponce Inlet, a member of the First Wives Advocacy group, called the bill “anti-women and anti-traditional family,” and said it could put alimony recipients, 97 percent of them women, on welfare in their later years.

Another member, Cathy Jones of Lakeland, called it “the end of the stay-at-home choice for women in Florida.”

Jones said she quit work at her husband’s request while they were married so she could rear their children and create a social life to help his career.

Now, she said, he’s a millionaire whose hobby is exotic cars, while her net worth is $70,000; her mortgage won’t be paid off until she’s 84.

“Women like me are reliant upon alimony,” she said.

Miami attorney Deborah Chames said the bill wouldn’t protect at-home mothers who forego their prime career years.

“If I know my husband might have a mid-life crisis at age 50 and leave, then I have to make sure I have my own skill set” by staying in the workforce, she said.

But bill supporters like Glen Wilner, an assistant chief in the U.S. Marshal’s Service, said that while there’s nothing wrong with the idea of alimony, “nobody should be ordered to pay for life.”

Wilner of Martin County was ordered to pay $2,000 a month for life when he got divorced in 2010 from his ex-wife, who was 41 and had a career as a personal trainer. They also split “a few hundred thousand” in marital assets, plus half the pension he will one day receive and child support, even though the two have shared custody of their three children.

Asked whether Scott would back a bill that’s not retroactive, spokeswoman Jeri Bustamante said he “will review any legislation that comes to his desk.”

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