So-called alimony reform legislation advanced to its final committee with divorcees, remarried individuals and others sharing personal testimony on both sides of the bill Tuesday.
The proposal (HB 843) by Rep. Alex Andrade would do away with permanent alimony and would set the presumption of child custody time sharing at 50-50. In the past, the Pensacola Republican has likened permanent alimony to “forced labor” by requiring payors to work past retirement age.
Alimony recipients argued cutting permanent alimony would leave retirement-aged divorcees homeless, but Andrade disputed their claims.
“There are 44 other states that have done away with it in the past, and you have not seen this massed movement to dependence on the state,” he said.
Lawyer Philip Wartenberg, representing The Family Law Section of the Florida Bar, said the bill is unnecessary because laws as they currently exist work fine. Courts use discretion, which he feared the 50-50 presumption would upend, to establish fair and equitable rulings.
“The idea that courts order permanent alimony, that’s not actually true either,” he said. “It’s a small number of cases that result in permanent alimony awards right now.”
But even Plantation Democratic Rep. Michael Gottlieb, the most vocal detractor on the panel, felt testimony Tuesday revealed the alimony system’s shortcomings, even if the anecdotes came from extreme cases.
“We’re definitely hearing about certain inequities in the system and the system clearly needs reform, I just don’t think this reform is it,” he said. “I think it’s too far-reaching, I feel that it’s throwing away the baby with the bathwater and that it just doesn’t do necessarily what it sets out to accomplish.”
And House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Rep. Clay Yarborough broke from his party to vote against the bill as the panel passed the measure 7-4. He acknowledged the bill is a work in progress, but he feared some provisions, including the 50% the length of marriage cap on durational alimony, may have unintended consequences.
“I just did not feel comfortable putting my name on something where we’re not sure to what extent it may cause some parties out there to have to … possibly have to turn to the state and turn to taxpayers for help,” Yarborough told Florida Politics.
However, West Palm Beach Democratic Rep. David Silvers gave the bill his temporary approval. But if the legislation hits the House floor without addressing some stakeholder concerns, he would change his mind.
Currently, long-term alimony can be modified at a judge’s discretion. And language added to the bill last month prevents it from overriding current alimony deals, a fact apparently lost on some witnesses who feared their current alimony payments would be affected.
Blake Taylor, a retired court reporter turned family court advocate, says one woman she is familiar with who has early-onset dementia fears for her stability if Florida adopts the law.
“As her dementia continues to worsen, she’s going to run out of alimony,” Taylor said. “She’s going to have nobody to advocate for her and she herself says she’s going to end up in a state-run nursing facility.”
A 1992 Florida Supreme Court ruling found that retirement counts as a change in circumstances that can modify alimony. But Andrade says codifying it in state law would save Floridians from making costly appeals in court.
Alimony reform has been a hot-button issue for the past several Legislative Sessions. In 2016, a reform bill made it to Gov. Rick Scott, who vetoed it over concerns it would harm children.
Last month, HB 843 cleared the House Civil Justice Subcommittee with a party-line vote. The Senate companion (SB 1832), sponsored by Lakeland Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel, has not yet been scheduled for a committee hearing.
Stargel previously told Florida Politics she expected her measure to appear in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. But the Senate’s appetite for alimony reform is in question now with two weeks of committees scheduled since then without taking up her bill.