Gruters withdraws alimony overhaul bill from Senate committee

Gruters withdraws alimony overhaul bill from Senate committee
State Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota (Source: News Service of Florida)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WWSB) - Senate Republican leaders have dropped a perennially controversial effort to overhaul the state’s alimony laws, saying Tuesday they’ll take another stab at a revamp during next year’s legislative session.

For nearly a decade, efforts to rewrite Florida’s alimony laws have touched off emotional debates, in part pitting homemakers and stay-at-home dads against breadwinners, who argue they are forced to continue working past retirement age so they can afford to make required monthly payments to ex-spouses.

Senate sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, told the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday that the goal of the proposal was to make it easier for older alimony payers to be able to retire and make divorces more amicable for couples parting ways.

“The general ethos of the bill is reduced litigation, reduced family fighting and not having Florida families depleting their assets and money to pay divorce lawyers every last penny,” Gruters said before asking the committee to “temporarily postpone” the bill until next year.

Former Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, vetoed two alimony-law revisions before leaving Tallahassee in 2019. A debate about the issue led to a near-fracas outside Scott’s office in 2016.

As in the past, proponents of this year’s effort --- including the group Florida Family Fairness --- lined up against The Florida Bar’s Family Law Section and the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Both sides again hired some of the state’s most powerful lobbying firms.

This year’s proposal again sought to do away with permanent alimony and significantly shave the duration of alimony.

Gruter yanked the proposal from consideration hours after the House discussed a similar measure (HB 1559) and prepared it for a floor vote. The annual legislative session is scheduled to end April 30.

House Democrats grilled bill sponsor Anthony Rodriguez, R-Miami, about a controversial provision that would require judges to begin with a “presumption” that children should split their time equally between parents. Scott largely pinned his 2016 veto of an alimony bill on a similar child-sharing provision.

But Rodriguez said the 50-50 child-sharing provision would simply codify in law where most judges currently start when they make determinations about child sharing.

“It’s already being practiced in most cases today,” Rodriguez said. “We want every child to spend the adequate time, 50-50 time sharing, with each parent, supposing that each parent is able and willing to care for that child. So we’re just trying to ratify the statute and say, when you walk into court, there is a 50-50 standard starting point.”

Under current law, Florida makes five types of alimony available: “temporary,” which lasts during divorce proceedings; “bridge-the-gap,” which provides up to two years of payments for the transition from being married to being single; “rehabilitative,” which provides support for an ex-spouse who is receiving training or schooling; “durational,” which allows ex-spouses to receive assistance for set periods of time; and “permanent,” which terminates when one spouse dies or when the party receiving payments is remarried.

This year’s House proposal also included a provision that would allow judges to reduce or terminate an alimony award or order reimbursement to an alimony payer if the court finds a “supportive relationship” exists or has existed between the ex-spouse who receives alimony and another person “at any time during the 180 days” before a petition for modification of alimony is filed. Under current law, alimony payers are allowed to terminate payments when their exes remarry.

Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, said the provision has been aimed at ending “gamesmanship” by ex-spouses.

“What we’ve seen in Florida is an unfortunate occurrence where the receiving of alimony is a deterrent to taking the legal step of engaging in any legal marriage, while people are sharing households together,” Andrade said during Tuesday’s question-and-answer floor session. “This bill reduces that type of gamesmanship and takes away that incentive not to get remarried.”

Senate Rules Chairwoman Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican slated to take over as Senate president after the 2022 elections, said lawmakers have received “hundreds of calls from people on both sides.”

“I know how tough of an issue it is,” she said, encouraging Gruters to work on the bill again next year. “I think it’s smart to start early on and get the stakeholders in the room, and hopefully we can come to a consensus of all the members.”

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