By Robert Napper Ayo & Iken Legal Correspondent
The death of an alimony reform bill this past legislative session seemed like a blow to hopes for changes to the law, but there is a new political action committee that recently held its first statewide meeting in the Tampa Bay area that says the bill’s demise is a good thing and the movement for change has never been stronger. It may take some time however as the newly established all-volunteer Florida Family Law Reform Political Action Committee Inc. readily admits that they believe they do not have a friend in the governor’s mansion who will sign meaningful alimony reform legislation. So the plan is to forgo trying to undertake seeking a sponsor for a new bill for the 2018 legislative session and instead embark on a fundraising and lobbying blitz for next year with an eye toward filing a new bill in 2019 after Gov. Rick Scott leaves office due to term limits.
On July 29, the PAC held its first statewide conference in Oldsmar, Fla. to talk alimony reform and hear from political leaders who have expressed support for their cause, including Florida District 16 Sen. Jack Latvala, who is giving up his seat due to term limits, and many believe will announce a run for governor; and Ed Hooper, a former Florida legislator, who Latvala has endorsed to be the successor to his seat. The meeting kicked off with an introduction of the PAC’s mission by CEO Terrance Power, whose story of financial loss and years of frustration garnered the 2013 Tampa Bay Times headline, “The Divorce from Hell, the Battle for Alimony and Emptied Pockets”. That same year was also a frustrating one for alimony reform in the legislature, Power told the crowd as he went through the history of alimony reform efforts that have either died through legislative dysfunction or twice by Scott’s veto. Power said 2013 looked like a banner year for alimony reform. The legislature presented Scott with a bill many in the alimony reform movement thought to be solid, including setting guidelines for judges to determine alimony based on the length of a marriage and a person’s income and the doing away with permanent alimony. Scott vetoed it, however, saying he did so due to a retroactive section of the bill that would allow for cases prior to the bill’s passage being eligible for modifications. “That was not a good night for us,” Power said. The frustration continued as bills in ensuing years that appeared to be a lock also met death. In 2015, a bill that breezed through both the House and Senate never saw a final vote as the session melted down and ended over a dispute concerning healthcare. A year later another bill actually made it to the governor’s desk that even had the blessing of a former powerful opponent, the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar, but an addition to the bill during the committee process doomed it in Gov. Scott’s eyes by lumping in 50/50 child time-sharing issues with the alimony reform bill. He went on to veto it.
This year another alimony reform bill the Family Law Section and other organizations thought would find its way through the legislature never even got a committee hearing as many in the reform movement believed it to be so watered down it would not bring sufficient needed change. “We just took it off the table,” Power said of behind-the-scene efforts. The game plan for the PAC now is to harken back the bill filed in 2013, SB 718, to use as a template to file a bill in 2019 that will address the issue once and for all in a meaningful way, Power told the crowd. “We just need a new occupant in the governor’s mansion,” he said. Power went through a list of proposed changes the PAC would support not the least of which being ending permanent alimony and establishing guidelines for judges, and suggested members take a refresher read of the 2013 bill which is posted on the PAC’s website www.floridafamilylawreformpac.org under its articles/links section. Latvala also addressed the group and while not officially announcing he will run for governor, his short speech sounded like that is the direction he is headed, saying any opponent he may face are seeking the governor’s mansion as a stepping stone to higher office such as the U.S. Senate. But he promised being governor would be his “last stop” in politics. The senator professed to be a supporter of alimony reform and assured the room he would remain so, saying he is a promise keeper. “I do keep my word,” he said. Latvala called it “sad” that the alimony reform issue in Florida has not been settled yet and advised the PAC to steer clear of cluttering up future bills, such as the inclusion of child time-sharing issues. “Don’t make it a Christmas tree,” he said. Florida Senate District 16 candidate Ed Hooper also spoke and said, if elected, he would be a supporter of alimony reform. He said it’s unfair that many alimony recipients get “bite after bite at the apple.” Hooper said “times have changed” and Florida law has remained archaic in dealing with alimony. “I will not stop helping any way I can,” he said.
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Attorney Richard Mockler, gave a speech calling for alimony reform, saying the current system is one of the most “inefficient he has seen.” Mockler decried Florida’s alimony system as the only entity that does not put the burden of proof on the recipient of funds to show the need for continued receiving of money, as is done with unemployment and disability. Instead, he said, it is the payers of alimony who must do the proving at great financial cost against long odds in order to get a modification. “I find it to be a very strange world,” he said of the current alimony system. Mockler expressed his belief that opponents of alimony reform who say it will hurt women who are uneducated or unable to find work are wrong. Instead, he said, Florida’s system actually hurts women by discouraging them from seeking higher education or employment opportunities to better themselves if they have no incentive to do so because they continually receive alimony through extended or permanent judgments. “That’s not healthy,” he said. The PAC has already set a second conference in Boca Raton on Oct. 28.
As always, Ayo and Iken will continue to discuss alimony reform and any potential news on the issue. We will continue to feature opinions and thoughts from our large team of family law attorneys. Ayo and Iken has a dedicated writing staff and maintains a legal television information studio that represents our commitment to bring cutting edge legal information to the citizens of Florida.