A Discussion on Alimony Reform in Florida
Welcome to the Ayo & Iken legal roundtable. We tackle the toughest legal issues with down-to-earth commentary you can use from our expert panel of attorneys which spans Florida from Tampa and Orlando to Miami, as well as outside sources with expertise.
In this edition, I will be discussing with our panel what is expected to be another debate over alimony reform this coming legislative session in Florida. Sen. Tom Lee (R-Brandon) has already filed Senate Bill 250 setting off another push for alimony reform in Florida.
Alimony bills filed in both chambers died during the 2015 session which ended in chaos as the Florida House stopped midsession over a dispute with the Senate over Medicaid expansion. But the bills had passed several key committees and were expected to pass both chambers. Obviously, it’s unknown whether Gov. Rick Scott would have signed a bill if it had made it to his desk. He vetoed an alimony reform bill in 2013 saying he was opposed to language making it retroactive to past divorces. The proposed bills in 2015 had that aspect removed.
Our panel in this edition includes Ayo & Iken Tampa Attorney Alberto Ayo; Family Law Inc. President Alan Frisher, an advocacy group seeking alimony reform in Florida; Jan Killilea, a divorcee and member of the First Wives Advocacy Group which has fought recent proposed alimony legislation; and Brevard County vocational consultant Ellen Fernandez, who conducts assessments of people’s earning potential in divorce cases.
To get our panel talking we pitched them some questions asking their take on proposed alimony reform this coming legislative session.
What do you think will happen with alimony reform legislation next year?
I think alimony reform in some form will happen. There are people out there who are getting stuck with 70 to 80 percent of their earnings going to alimony and child support, and I don’t think that’s fair. It seems the more time goes by these bills are a lot more thought out and there’s been compromise there. I like the guidelines and clearer definitions that I have seen when it comes to cohabitation. There are a lot of people who don’t get remarried just so they can keep getting alimony. Why should someone have all the benefits of being married and still get alimony?
As long as our 2016 legislative session continues as planned through the end, I expect to have new law in place surrounding alimony. In September, I am meeting with many legislators to discuss the upcoming proposal. I’m feeling very confident that we will get something done that will be monumental for our families now, and in the future.
I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I think there’s always going to be a need to assess people’s earning potential in order to give judges more information to work with. But some of the things I get called in to talk about should just be routine things, but they are not treated so in courts right now. So I think alimony reform will help in that sense. But you are still going to have some of those odd ones where the judge’s discretion will still be coming into play. I have no idea exactly what will happen, I don’t know that anybody knows. And if I don’t get as many calls about some of things that should be routine, maybe that’s a good thing.
Sen. Lee filed an alimony reform bill last week which contains an equal child time sharing component. Would you have any thoughts on the bill filed by Sen. Lee and that particular part of the proposed bill?
Senator Lee’s bill is interesting as it does include equal time sharing (with many exceptions as noted), as well as Collaborative Practice language. By combining both the alimony reform proposal and the Collaborative Law Act proposal, he hopes to have one complete version of the new alimony law. He took many aspects of the language that we were able to form from last session, including the formula for alimony that was derived between my organization and the (Florida Bar) Family Section, and incorporated it into his own bill. I’m not certain if our sponsors will file a competing bill excluding the time sharing language or not. We are discussing the pros and cons of such a move. Our concern is the controversy surrounding the inclusion of the time sharing language and how the Governor will perceive the controversy by the Family Section (who opposes this language). The research seems to indicate that a rebuttable presumption of equal time sharing is what is best for children. I agree, but I do not want that issue to stop the advancement of new law for alimony reform, and that is my main concern. I would rather have the equal time sharing as a separate proposal so that alimony reform can finally occur.
Would you have any thoughts on the new proposed bill filed and what will happen with alimony reform this time around. Also, does your group plan to be heard on the issue this session?
Yes, we will be opposing the bill for all the same reasons the League of Women Voters Florida stated in their letter. Personally, I believe the “enforcement” language is very weak and I will be taking my case to the legislators and the Governor again. Line: 799 (5) (a) states:
“When the court of competent jurisdiction enters an order for the payment of alimony or child support or both, the court shall make a finding of the obligor’s imputed or actual present ability to comply with the order. If the obligor subsequently fails to pay alimony or support and a contempt hearing is held, the original order of the court creates a presumption that the obligor has the present ability to pay alimony or support and to purge himself or herself from the contempt. At the contempt hearing, the obligor shall have the burden of proof to show that he or she lacks the ability to purge himself or herself from contempt.”
That’s it? In my case, there are two arrests warrants, a purge of $24,000, two contempt orders for alimony arrearages of $187,233.14 since my divorce in 2009. As you know my former husband has fled the country and working as a VP for a company in Vancouver. We need stronger enforcement laws, wouldn’t you agree?
It is estimated that since our divorce in 2009, the former husband has earned over a million dollars in wages, tips and other compensation. He has tried to modify alimony twice and his first attempt failed as the court stated, “former husband lied, was disingenuous and played games with the Court.” His second attempt has been pending for over a year. Although he claimed he was ‘unemployed and on welfare’ I discovered him working in Canada earning six figures. As a woman in my mid 50’s working three part time jobs, I have slipped below the poverty level and qualify for food stamps all the while these contempt orders, purges and arrest warrants have no teeth outside Palm Beach County. They call this reform? I call it redistribution of wealth at the expense of the taxpayers.
I think including major changes on parenting provisions put the legislation in jeopardy. Many of the stakeholders signed off on the alimony provisions. But the presumed 50/50 parenting time raised concerned with some major players with input on the bill. This puts a huge question mark on the future of the legislation.
I think it’s only a matter of time. I’m excited. I think it’s long overdue. I think guidelines for judges will help in a lot of these alimony cases just because there are so many unknowns as to where a judge will rule on a particular case. If there are some bright line guidelines people will be more apt to settle.
I think it’s a done deal if the legislature can get the governor on board. The governor needs lobbying because it seems like the legislature is set on it. I really agree with alimony reform. It’s really hard for judges because there is so much discretion from case to case. It will be good for them to have some guidance and put some restrictions on it.
If you want to get more in-depth into the alimony reform issue, I documented the debate over alimony reform last legislative session in a lengthy piece on the matter last year. That story and a trove of information including regular updates which I highly recommend can be found on our website at https://www.myfloridalaw.com/alimony/florida-alimony-reform
Our specialized content, video, and other informative media are based on input from Ayo and Iken team members, outside guests, former team members of Ayo and Iken, independent journalists, and subject-matter authorities. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the official position of Ayo and Iken. Attorneys that are not current team members at Ayo and Iken may be reached though their member listing on the Florida Bar website: www.flabar.org