Alimony overhaul clears Florida Senate

The Florida Senate on Wednesday approved a plan to revamp the state’s alimony laws, taking...
The Florida Senate on Wednesday approved a plan to revamp the state’s alimony laws, taking another stab at a contentious issue that has led to vetoes of three similar bills over the past decade.(wcjb)
Published: Apr. 20, 2023 at 8:31 AM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate on Wednesday approved a plan to revamp the state’s alimony laws, taking another stab at a contentious issue that has led to vetoes of three similar bills over the past decade.

After wrangling for years, The Florida Bar’s Family Law Section and supporters of overhauling the alimony system have given their blessing to this year’s proposal. The bill would eliminate what is known as permanent alimony and create a formula for alimony payments based on the length of marriages.

But one group that could be heavily affected by the proposed changes — mostly older women who worked at home raising children and boosting their ex-spouses’ careers before getting divorced — were left out of months-long negotiations.

“Good grief, we’re a group of 3,000 women,” Camille Fiveash, a Milton woman who receives permanent alimony, told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview shortly before the Senate voted 34-6 to pass the measure Thursday. “It’s a handful of men (calling for the overhaul), and they pandered to them, the wealthy, and left us out of the negotiations. We have some things to say, because it affects us. It may be worded very carefully not to be unconstitutional, but it applies retroactively.”

Fiveash is among members of the “First Wives Advocacy” group who have traveled to Tallahassee for a decade to try to fend off legislation. Permanent alimony payments are their primary source of income and, without it, Fiveash said many women would be impoverished and, in some instances, homeless.

But bill sponsor Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who also shepherded similar legislation in the past, has maintained that the measure would not unconstitutionally affect existing alimony settlements, a concern raised by Gov. Ron DeSantis when he vetoed an alimony bill last year. Former Gov. Rick Scott twice vetoed similar bills.

“As you know, this has been a long journey. I think it’s been vetoed three times. It’s been up, I think, 10 times over the past 15 years,” Gruters, an accountant, told senators Thursday. “The goal was to do two things: eliminate permanent alimony and also to try to streamline the process and make it more predictable and try to create a formula-type thing that will make it so families can keep more of the assets that they’ve accumulated over the years.”

Supporters said the bill (SB 1416) would codify into law a court decision in a 1992 divorce case that judges use as a guidepost when making decisions about retirement.

Gruters thanked lobbyists Lisa Hurley, who represents the Family Law section of the Bar, and Nelson Diaz, who represents Florida Family Fairness, a group that has spearheaded efforts to change the alimony system.

“When we finally sat down together and worked out every single issue in this bill, we finally had a bill that I think everybody, 95 percent of the population, agrees with,” Gruters said.

This proposal still needs House approval. While seeking to do away with permanent alimony, it would set restrictions on other types of alimony. For example, the measure would impose a five-year limit on “rehabilitative” alimony.

Also, alimony awards would be based on the duration of the marriage and, with some exceptions, could not exceed the lesser of the alimony recipient’s “reasonable need” or 35 percent of the difference between the parties’ net incomes. Durational alimony could not be awarded for marriages that last less than three years.

The bill also would allow people paying alimony to seek modifications if “a supportive relationship exists or has existed” involving their ex-spouses in the previous year. Critics argue the provision is vague and could apply to temporary roommates who help alimony recipients cover housing expenses for short periods of time.

Sue Savage, a 62-year-old Naples woman who receives permanent alimony, said she is worried the proposed elimination of permanent alimony and restrictions on the length of durational alimony would strip her of income if her ex-husband seeks and is granted a modification to their settlement agreement.

When asked how she would cope should her alimony be eliminated, Savage told the News Service, “That’s a good question. Sell my house and live in my car, I guess. I’m hoping it will get vetoed.”

Sen. Lori Berman, a Boca Raton Democrat who voted against the bill, has questioned Gruters about the bill’s retirement provisions and retroactivity.

During floor debate Wednesday, Gruters told her, “Here’s the deal: If you have an agreement that’s modifiable, whether we pass this law or not, it’s still going to be modifiable. If it’s non-modifiable and we pass this law, it’s still going to be non-modifiable.”

Berman said in a phone interview Thursday the changes could result in “some bad retroactive effects.”

“I asked the sponsor if there was any age limitation on retirement, and he said, ‘no,’ so that’s where you’re going to see the modifications. Then this whole issue of living with someone else and being supported by them. It’s very vague, very unclear,” Berman, a lawyer, said.

The bill also would allow judges to consider “the adultery of either spouse and any resulting economic impact in determining the amount of alimony, if any, to be awarded.”

Savage pointed to that proposal while criticizing the bill.

“We’ve been a no-fault divorce state for a quarter of a century now and we’re going to go back to burning people at the stake for cheating on their spouse? That’s crazy,” she said.

This year’s version of the bill does not include a controversial proposal that would have required 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. The Family Law Section fiercely opposed the inclusion of the child-sharing provision in previous iterations of the bills.