Senate leaves alimony bill at the altar

alimony fight
The bill's most controversial component was over child custody.

It looks as if Florida will not join 44 other states that have abolished their permanent alimony systems.

After a House bill to drastically change Florida’s permanent alimony laws faced questions from Democrats during a second reading in the lower chamber Tuesday, the upper chamber, in a Senate Rules Committee meeting the same day, temporarily postponed the companion bill.

Similar legislation pops up almost every year, but it has become a bit of a Florida tradition for the alimony bill to never quite make it all the way through the Process. One alimony bill passed the floor in both chambers in 2016 but was vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Scott.

Sponsor Sen. Joe Gruters was carrying the bill (SB 1922) in the Senate this year.

“When I took over this bill, I didn’t really know what I was expecting,” Gruters said. “The more I understand the issue, the more I think that a bill has to pass.”

Gruters vowed to bring another alimony bill again next year, despite the opposition this year.

“At this point, there are some issues that we don’t have common ground on. For that reason, I’m going to TP the bill and bring this bill back next year,” Gruters said.

The House bill faced questions from members on the House floor Tuesday.

Democrats have opposed the legislation, and Vero Beach Republican Rep. Erin Grall broke with her party in a past committee meeting to vote against this year’s version, which drew lengthy public testimony at committee meetings.

The proposal (HB 1559), sponsored by Miami Republican Rep. Anthony Rodriguez, would eliminate permanent alimony, instead favoring “bridge-the-gap” alimony or temporary alimony.

Another major part of the bill affects child custody.

Under current Florida law a judge evaluates 17 to 20 factors to decide child custody. That wouldn’t change, but under this year’s proposal the child custody presumption would start with the parents splitting 50-50 custody of their child.

In response to a line of questioning from Rep. Omari Hardy, Rodriguez explained he’s “codifying the language and statute that’s being implemented today, but it’s not in statute. It’s just what most judges are basing themselves off of.”

“Are you saying that judges aren’t applying the law, and that appellate courts aren’t catching that,” Hardy retorted.

Rep. Emily Slosberg said the new law could require parents who want more than 50% custody to prove the other spouse is not qualified even in severe instances like drug abuse.

“We’re placing the burden of proof on the other parent to actually put forth evidence as opposed to the current standard, which is a judge determining factors,” Slosberg said.

“I actually would agree with the alimony parts of your bill, but not necessarily the time sharing,” Rep. Michele Rayner, a lawyer, said.

While the concerns on the House floor were brought by Democrats, the child custody portion of the bill was problematic in committee hearings too, even among Republican members.

Two amendments were added to the bill during the second reading but neither deals with child custody.

One amendment exempts disability payments paid to combat wounded veterans from counting as income for alimony determination.

Another amendment updated language in the bill to say alimony for marriages lasting more than 20 years can be 75% rather than 50%, increases the amount of alimony a judge can order from 25% to 30% and added in language from the Florida Bar’s Family Law Section that deals with existing alimony cases.

Despite the change, existing alimony cases remained a concern for Orlando Rep. Anna Eskamani.

“A lot of the concerns I have received about the bill are from elder women who were not breadwinners, because in a different time in our country’s history they stayed home to take care of the children, and so they don’t really have a lot of wealth to their name. And they’re very worried that if your bill does pass they would be harmed financially into their retirement,” Eskamani said.

Haley Brown

Haley Brown covers state government for Previously, Haley covered the West Virginia Legislature and anchored weekend newscasts for WVVA in Bluefield, W.Va. Haley is a Florida native and a graduate of the University of Florida. You can reach her at [email protected].


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