A repeat bill seeking to revamp Florida’s alimony laws slipped through its first House committee Tuesday as it debuted in the 2021 Legislature this week.
The proposal (HB 1559), sponsored by Miami Republican Rep. Anthony Rodriguez, passed the House Civil Justice and Property Rights Subcommittee in a 10-6 vote, with Vero Beach Republican Rep. Erin Grall breaking with other members of her party.
The legislation, which has been floated for the past several years, would eliminate permanent alimony and would set the presumption of child custody time sharing at 50/50 between parents. If passed, Florida would join 44 other states in enacting a law banning perpetual alimony.
Currently, long-term alimony can be modified at a judge’s discretion. A 1992 Florida Supreme Court ruling found that retirement counts as a change in circumstances that can modify alimony.
“I welcome working with any of you to enhance this bill,” Rodriguez said. “I understand this is not a one-size-fits-all. This reform is needed. We are one of a handful of states that still has permanent alimony on the books.”
The legislation received criticism from lawmakers across the aisle for its provision changing the presumption of child custody time sharing to a 50/50 split. Current law allocates custody to the discretion of the judge “based on the best interest of the child.”
“Sometimes, some pro se litigants will not even understand how to rebut that presumption,” Palm Beach Democrat Rep. Emily Slosberg said. “They’re not really sure what that means… and lot of times, 50/50 is really not in the best interest of the child.”
The custody provision of the bill was the reason Grall voted it down along with her Democratic colleagues.
“I am supportive of the alimony provisions of this bill, but I’m very concerned about the 50/50 presumption around child sharing,” Grall said. “I think the current standard of ‘in the best interests of the child’ is an important one, and I think as a Legislature, are we deciding what is in the best interest of every child? Is that an appropriate policy decision, because that’s in effect what this does.”
Notably, 50/50 time-sharing in custodial arrangements can come with reduced child support payment.
The bill faced heated public testimony.
Opponents argue cutting permanent alimony would leave individuals who may care for children in compromising positions, and the legislation only seeks to benefit the primary breadwinner, putting the other individual at an unfair disadvantage.
Barbara DeVane, for the Florida National Organization for Women, said the organization is worried about the bill’s potential to disproportionately affect women, especially older women, during a time when the pandemic has created limits on jobs.
“I think this is like my ninth, or tenth year to be here in opposition to this bill,” DeVane said. “At a time when we’re in an COVID crisis, when three out of four women have left the workplace to go home and care for their children, you’re once again discussing a bill, which will greatly and disproportionately affect women and children.”
The Family Law Section of The Florida Bar, which opposes the bill, issued a statement against both its alimony measures and custody provision, arguing the laws already in place address the unique circumstances of each case.
“We believe that these sweeping bills ultimately hurt Florida families,” the statement read. “Collectively, and as individual family law attorneys, we are committed to advocating for laws that protect strong, healthy families and, above all else, put children’s needs first; and, unfortunately, this legislation erodes those protections.”
The Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers joined other groups in opposition.
Those in support of the legislation included several divorcees currently paying alimony. Some shared concerns they would not be able to retire because of the continuous alimony payment.
“I cannot retire because I have alimony payments every 30 days,” said Deborah Shultz, who pays alimony to her ex-husband. “I now have six grandchildren, and I cannot even enjoy participating in their lives, all while he is living life to the fullest. The law needs to change.”
Florida Family Fairness expressed support for the bill. Several individuals who spoke at the House committee also appeared at Monday night’s Senate meeting, which heard testimony, but ran out of time to vote on the legislation.
Sarasota Republican Sen. Joe Gruters sponsored this year’s Senate bill (SB 1922).
Alimony reform has been a hot-button issue for the past several Legislative Sessions. In 2016, a reform bill made it to then-Gov. Rick Scott, who vetoed it over concerns it would harm children.
Last year, the proposal (HB 843) was sponsored by Rep. Alex Andrade. In the past, the Pensacola Republican has likened permanent alimony to “forced labor” by requiring payers to work past retirement age.