Florida House passes bill overhauling alimony

Herald/TimesTallahassee BureauApril 19, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- Former spouses saddled with perpetual alimony payments, rejoice.

The Florida Legislature is here to help.

The House passed a contentious bill Thursday that could end permanent alimony payments and enable the courts to modify existing arrangements between ex-spouses. The proposal also would require judges to give divorced parents equal custody of their children sans extraordinary circumstances.

Gov. Rick Scott has not indicated if he will sign the bill, which would not eliminate alimony but put limits on it. The bill passed the Senate by a 29-11 vote earlier this month.

The governor is certain to hear from alimony payers and recipients, many of whom lent their pointed opinions and personal stories to one of the session's most emotional debates.

"Signing this bill is the right thing to do," said Alan Frisher, who co-founded a nonprofit organization called Family Law Reform after his divorce a decade ago. "It is going to bring predictability to the law and help families."

Family lawyers, however, plan to ask for a veto.

"We don't consider this legislation in the best interest of children and families," said Carin Porras, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who chairs the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar. "People have made financial decisions presuming that they would receive alimony. To change that would be unfair."

The proposal would do more than just end permanent alimony. In most cases, it would prevent alimony payments from lasting more than half the length of the marriage. The size of an alimony check would be capped based on the payer's salary. And payers, by and large, could stop making payments after they retire.

Shepherding the proposal to an 85-31 vote on the House floor was no easy feat for its sponsor, state Rep. Ritch Workman.

"I've been asked why we need alimony reform," the Melbourne Republican said. "Well, without order, there is chaos," he said, adding that the bill would create better guidelines for awarding alimony.

Workman, who is divorced, fended off questions that the bill would benefit him. He and his ex-wife had a "short, quick, no-problem divorce," he said, adding that he never paid or received alimony.

Still, Workman encountered fierce opposition from family lawyers and Democrats, who argued Thursday that the bill was "anti-women."

The debate on the floor was led by female lawmakers. State Rep. Barbara Watson warned her fellow representatives that the bill "could put (their) daughters in a great deal of stress."

"I've heard from women who have actually said that they have given up their careers to advance the careers of their spouses," the Miami Gardens Democrat said. "When their hip size changed from 36 to 46, (their husbands) decided to change their spouse."

State Rep Lori. Berman of Lantana made the case against a one-size-fits-all approach to marital settlements by quoting the opening line of Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." "Every unhappy family is happy in its own way," she said.

But Republican women -- joined by state Rep. Katie Edwards, a Plantation Democrat -- argued that the proposed law would put men and women on equal footing.

"Thank you very much, I don't need anyone to take care of me," said state Rep. Elizabeth Porter from Lake City. "I guess I just come from a line of strong women, and I believe that's how we need to be raising our daughters. Let's raise strong women. Let's not say someone needs to take care of us for the rest of our lives."

Kathleen McGrory, Miami Herald staff writer, can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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