Tom Lemons, Legal Correspondent
March 4, 2020
TALLAHASSEE – Despite its relatively effortless passage through the Florida House, the 2020 alimony reform bill, HB843, failed to marshal enough attention from Senate leadership to move forward with debate. Supporters of the bill hoped to bring an end to permanent alimony and allow retirees the option to modify or stop paying alimony altogether. Although the bill was not gender specific, opponents of the measure, like the Florida Bar and Florida National Organization for Women believed its passage would overwhelmingly harm women. Consequently, Democrats and Republicans were divided over the proposition, with Republicans voting in favor of reform.
HB843 architect Marc Johnson of Florida Family Fairness Inc. told Ayo & Iken, “We presented a comprehensive reform bill, had excellent sponsorship in Representative Alex Andrade and Senator Kelli Stargel, and secured the support of House leadership, but despite our best efforts, we were unable to convince Senate leadership to support our bill in the 2020 session.” Johnson went on to say, “We are disappointed, but we will continue working hard to bring Florida’s antiquated alimony laws into the 21st century.” According to Johnson, Florida is just one of six states that still allows judges to grant permanent alimony during a divorce. “Florida is behind the curve nationwide in reforming alimony laws and eliminating the concept of permanent alimony. Florida Family Fairness Inc. will continue to push for reform,” says Johnson.
One misconception that plagues citizens and lawmakers, alike, is the belief that HB843 would have been retroactive. According to the most recent House Staff Analysis: All portions of the bill are effective July 1, 2020, but nothing in the bill may be interpreted to invalidate an award for support, maintenance, or alimony, including permanent alimony, which was ordered prior to July 1, 2020. Another falsehood that advocates say causes concern with the opposition is the belief recipients of alimony will become dependent on state assistance. Rep. Andrade explained during a House committee hearing that recent studies show no evidence of increased tax burden or an influx of state dependency. Additionally, Rep. Andrade asserts that divorce litigation will decrease in both cost and duration. The House Staff Analysis reads: By permitting a party to petition for bifurcation of DOM (Dissolution of Marriage) proceedings, the bill may decrease litigation in some cases by ending the parties’ legal connection to each other, but may increase litigation over issues that remain unsettled after the parties’ marriage is legally dissolved. A spouse seeking bifurcation in order to remarry may have less motivation to settle remaining issues between the parties, especially if he or she is in a better financial position to pay attorney fees. Likewise, the other spouse in such a situation may be motivated to further the litigation of remaining issues.
This is the third failed attempt by reform advocates since 2013. In 2016, the bill passed the House and Senate, but former Governor Rick Scott crushed reformer’s hopes with the stroke of his veto pen. Advocates took to social media Wednesday, to reflect on the pros and cons of their efforts and begin preparations for their fourth challenge next session. Michael McAuliffe is one of Florida’s leading advocates for alimony reform and he is hopeful that when Senator Wilton Simpson takes over as Senate President in November, he’ll support continued efforts to change the status quo. In addition to a renewed statewide campaign, McAuliffe is considering a push for federal legislation that would end permanent alimony across the nation. “We intend to reach out to Representative Matt Gaetz and start a dialog on prospective approaches for a Federal level solution to address the rampant abuses of the Florida Bar, and the stranglehold they have on Florida Government,” says McAuliffe.
During a Judiciary Committee hearing last month, Rep. Andrade made it clear to committee members that he had grown passionate about alimony reform and if it failed in 2020 he would spearhead legislation again next session.