Tom Lemons, Legal Correspondent
February 28, 2020
TALLAHASSEE – There is a lot of confusion with this year’s attempt at reforming alimony in Florida. Just six other states, including Florida, still have permanent alimony, but for some reason lawmakers in Tallahassee just can’t seem to get it past the finish line. So, what are its chances in 2020?
HB843 passed its final hurdle on Wednesday and now it’s headed to the House floor for debate. The Bill’s sponsor Alex Andrade (R) from Pensacola is optimistic, but he told one news outlet that his optimism might be “naïve.” Despite his personal concerns, he says he’s grown so passionate about the issue that he’ll most likely present it again next year, if it ultimately fails.
The Bill’s architects, attorneys Marc Johnson and Alan Elkins have a more confident outlook on the Bill’s success, even though there are doubts the Senate will pick up and carry the torch. Johnson says, “There is a path to success in the Senate, but that will depend on Senate President Bill Galvano,” the Republican from Bradenton, Florida.
A staff member with the office of Kelli Stargel (R), sponsor of companion bill SB1832, says at this point there is a very slim chance the Bill will make it to the Senate floor. He referred to the chances as a “miracle,” if it does happen; however, Attorney Johnson says his lobbyist are very confident they can beat the clock and convince the Senate to open debate.
During Wednesday’s hearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee, there was heartbreaking testimony from citizens on both side of the issue. As expected, a representative from Florida NOW (National Women’s Organization) waved in opposition of the bill, as did a representative from the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar. I tried reaching out to Florida NOW representatives, but they have not responded to my requests for comment. I also tried talking to several women who pleaded with the committee to vote no on the Bill, but they also refused to answer my questions. Families who were urging committee members to pass the Bill were much more open to discussion, like Lisa Marie Courtney, wife of Dr. Michael Courtney from Spring Hill, FL. Courtney says her husband pays $5800 per month to his ex-wife and has done so for nineteen years, not to mention the $2,600 in child support paid for their two children, over the course of two years. Courtney says, “There’s no such thing as alimony modification. We spent our entire life savings to try and get a modification. We had all the documents, as our lawyers said we would qualify for, and we did not. So, we are back to square one.” In 2017 Dr. Courtney was arrested at his office, after an administrative mix-up at the Clerk’s Office showed he had not made several payments. During the committee hearing, Courtney went on to explain that her and her husband have never taken a vacation, but that his ex-wife takes her “supportive” partner on European vacations all the time. But Courtney’s biggest concern is what happens after her husband retires. Courtney says, “Will I have to keep working to pay his $5,800 in alimony and face being incarcerated again, if we fail to make the payments?” The Ayo & Iken Report will have a full video interview with Mrs. Courtney in the coming days.
Attorney Johnson said during an interview, “Everyone deserves an opportunity to retire and this bill affords long-term alimony payers that right. We think that everyone who has worked their career should have the right to retire.” Johnson also debunked the argument that Florida will see an upsurge in state dependency. He says, “it’s an unfounded argument” and that other states have not seen a mass increase in dependency after alimony ends. He also reminds both sides of the issue that HB843 is not retroactive, despite what the opposition says. “As heart wrenching as some of these stories are, they are not going to be affected by this Bill, if it passes,” says Johnson.
Attorney Alan Elkins echoes Jonson’s sentiments and is very critical of the status quo. “Listen I get it, but I represent an equal number of men and women, but at some point, you need balance – what’s in the recipient’s interest and what’s in the payer’s interest. What we hope to achieve is having guidelines, so there’s no guesswork, no ambiguity,” Says Elkins. He goes on to compare alimony cases to gambling in Florida, stating, “It’s the biggest casino in the state, it’s not at the Indian reservation, its at the courthouse, because you never know what’s going to happen.” Elkins, who has practiced family law in Florida for 40-years says there is no consistency from judge to judge.
Mrs. Courtney last words to the committee were, “Some people here are saying where will we live, because we will be a part of the system. We will also be part of the system because we will be in jail.”
Regardless of where anyone stands on HB843, it’s ultimately in the hands of the Senate, even if it passes the House. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess as to the future of alimony reform in 2020.