Family law attorneys in Florida have reason to be excited and it has nothing to do with their daily routine. Governor DeSantis signed into law a series of bills that have the potential to reshape families across the entire state. Previous years have brought minor changes in family law but nothing that can redefine the bulk of family cases proceeding through the Court system. A recent series of bills, now enacted into law, promise to change legal strategies, realistic goals, and the ultimate outcome of thousands of cases. Family law attorneys must now contend with their own version of hurricane season. The changes will radically reshape case outcomes for many decades to come. And attorneys stand to gain monetarily from the ongoing chaos.
Leading the pack of new laws is the eight-thousand-pound gorilla of statutory changes: the elimination of permanent alimony. No subject has stirred the conversation as permanent alimony has done. Effective right now for all pending or new cases, permanent alimony is no longer an option for men or women. For many people, permanent alimony is just as it sounds. It is an obligation to pay a specific amount of money to an ex-spouse until the time the payor or payee is deceased. There is no subject in the family courts more bitter and none more contested. Alimony will still exist. But the options that are left consist of shorter-term awards of alimony, granted in a specific amount for a specified term. The new law eliminates the most controversial and most hated form of alimony. House Bill 1409, effective as of July 1st, 2023, eliminates permanent alimony. You would think a change like this will simplify alimony cases and ultimately reduce legal fees. But people simply try harder to get what they can any time you take away something valuable. There are several forms of alimony still on the table. Predictably clients will spend more and litigate harder to get something that approximates what now is unavailable. While attorneys might be excited by the challenge, they will undoubtedly be happier with the additional legal fees. This change is beneficial as it injects fairness into our system of alimony. It also places in writing a procedure for alimony payors to retire. Governor DeSantis made a good decision when he signed this very controversial law and gets an A for this new law.
Second, on the controversy scale is a huge, groundbreaking change in various laws governing parenting rights. Previous parenting laws tended to give the short end of the stick to fathers and most definitely benefited the mothers. As of July 1st, 2023, fathers, and for that matter both parents now start out with equal parenting rights, or at least the promise of equal rights. Parenting laws have evolved significantly over the past few decades. Early in the family law scene, fathers had severely diminished rights, and mothers were considered the proper guardian of children. House Bills 775 and 1301 now mandate courts to start from a position of equal time-sharing between both parents. The new law also makes it easier to modify previous judgments regarding parenting time. This change affects children born both in and out of wedlock. There is already an indication this change will inflame mothers that have controversies in the legal system. There is nothing fairer than creating a starting point of 50/50 timesharing for parenting decisions. The Governor gets another A for this new law.
Rounding out the family law whirlwind of changes is something that deeply reflects the culture war advanced by Governor DeSantis. This change involves a law unknown to the general public but well-known by family law attorneys. The Uniform Child Custody, Jurisdiction, and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) is a law that every US state has adopted in nearly identical forms. You may consider it the equivalent of traffic signs and directions on public roads because that is essentially what the UCCJEA does: it is a set of rules and directions to courts that ultimately determines which state and which court has the final say so over children’s issues within family law cases. The UCCJEA is mostly logical, and analytical, and mostly provides instructions for all involved on which court to file a parenting case. Family law attorneys use it and cite it almost all of the time in every case involving children. It is so important that every family law case requires a document called a UCCJEA Affidavit that recites the rules and how they apply to someone’s specific case.
The two things the UCCJEA was NOT are political or cultural. Rather than succumbing to the whims of politics, the UCCJEA was almost a logical instruction sheet for attorneys and judges. That distinction is now history. Whether one likes it or not, the Governor’s ‘war on woke’ has influenced family law, and the repercussions have just begun. Now, contained within a list of logical factors used in deciding the location for litigating a case is a big, fat exception. The exception allows judges to make a jurisdictional exception if a distant parent may subject that child to puberty blockers, or gender reassignment surgery. That inserted exception is not devasting in itself. But the change may be the initial shot in a jurisdictional war between many states. If Florida changes their statute to further cultural preferences, then other states can do the same. Attorneys may witness an evolving situation over the next few years where other states modify their own version of the UCCJEA to match their cultural preferences. The end result will be a conflicting patchwork of laws that will simultaneously be fought over in each and every state. This change is bound to get family law attorneys excited and enriched but the end result will be to significantly increase complications and costs for every family unlucky enough to be caught up in the court system. There are clearly more appropriate places for a war on woke than changing a routine, transactional law that guides the family courts. The Governor gets an F for signing a law that is out of place and not appropriate for its intended purpose.
The final new law affecting the family court, signed by Governor DeSantis is known as Greyson’s Law. This law has the admiral goal of protecting children from the dangers of domestic violence. Greyson’s Law lowers the hurdle for a parent that wants to deny the other parent their time, and their parental rights with a child. Previously there must have been a domestic violence conviction for a court to start with the assumption that a parent will be denied time with their child. Conviction is a condition that requires an arrest, substantial evidence, a lengthy court proceeding, and a judicial determination of guilt. That formality is now swept away in favor of a court determining whether there is reasonable cause to believe someone is guilty. There will now be a tidal wave of clients with their attorneys that see this law as a way to take advantage of the other parent with the goal of winning their custody case. While the goal of protecting children is laudable, the potential for certain parents to exploit the law for their advantage is deeply concerning. The Governor gets a B minus for the decision to sign this law.
At Ayo & Iken, our eleven family law attorneys are already witnessing the initial impact of these new laws on our clients. This is the most consequential change in family law that we have seen in decades. Everyone will be affected but the extent of that effect will not be known for years to come. But it is definitely the equivalent of hurricane season for our attorneys.
Howard Iken is the managing partner of Ayo & Iken, one of the largest family law firms in the State of Florida. He has extensive legal and business experience. One of his frequent activities is monitoring the legislative environment in Florida and analyzing the potential effect on court cases.