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Jac VerSteeg: Alimony reform could prevent divorce – for a few months

The Florida Legislature, always interested in preserving families, is working on a reform that is guaranteed to prevent some breakups.

In the short run, that is.

What’s the reform? The 2015 session that starts March 3 is almost certain to produce a package of alimony reforms. Alimony was a hot topic two years ago, and an alimony reform measure passed the House and Senate. But Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it just before it could become law without his signature.

This year’s package still is being written. But it will be sponsored by two Republicans from Lakeland, Rep. Colleen Burton and Sen. Kelli Stargel. Burton is a freshman. Stargel was a sponsor of the 2013 measure. Having two women sponsor the reform – which has been portrayed by some as unfair to women – improves the optics.

But a hefty measure of the clout is coming from Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, chairman of the House Rules Committee.

Workman, another sponsor of the 2013 alimony package, told the News Service of Florida: “I’ve been working for a year and a half with the sides that hate each other. I tried very hard to close the holes on both sides. I don’t like anybody using alimony as a weapon.”

Funny how Workman sounds like a marriage counselor there.

So how will this new alimony measure keep marriages together? Bet that a lot of Florida husbands will be putting the brakes on divorce proceedings until they see what the new alimony rules can do for them.

I say “husbands” because males traditionally have paid the bulk of alimony. But Florida wives who are breadwinners could be having the same doubts.

Under current rules, alimony can be awarded for life. The new alimony rules are expected to cap the number of years the breadwinner has to pay his or her ex, with the time pegged to the length of the marriage. Judges likely will be able to take into account such things as whether one spouse sacrificed a career to allow the other to build a lucrative career. And the reforms seem to have significant bipartisan support because of a key change from the version floated two years ago.

In the 2013 version, the cap would have been applied retroactively. Lots of people seething about lifelong payments to a hated former spouse were gleefully waiting for the 2013 package to become law.

But Scott vetoed that package in large part because of the retroactive provision. He said it would be unfair for spouses relying on alimony to suddenly have that financial stability pulled out from under them.

Advocates for retroactivity have pointed out that it would address another form of unfairness – the spouse who is remarried in all but name but keeps his or her single status to avoid triggering an alimony cutoff.

There are hints the new alimony package will give judges more leeway to consider such factors when deciding whether to modify current alimony arrangements.

But with retroactivity certain to be absent from any 2015 package, lifetime alimony still would be in the cards for any alimony agreement reached before it passes and goes into effect.

That’s why cagey breadwinners contemplating divorce can be expected to stall at least for a few more months.

Your Florida Legislature, working to keep families together.

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is editor of Context Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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