Lawmakers pass bill dramatically changing how judges allocate alimony payments and time children spend with each parent
TALLAHASSEE -- A rewrite of Florida's divorce laws that upends alimony and custody policies is headed to Gov. Rick Scott after being passed by the Legislature.
Under SB 668, judges could no longer grant lifetime alimony payments, and much of the discretion in negotiating each case would be gone. Instead, the amount and duration of alimony would be determined by formulas based on the length of the marriage and the differences in income between the two people divorcing.
Supporters argue this will create more consistency between cases and predictability for couples going through divorce.
The component causing the loudest outcry is a "premise" children split time equally between both parents. Judges could adjust that premise after weighing 15 factors, including evidence of domestic violence, the parents' health and their "moral fitness."
Opponents argue this changes the focus of child-sharing agreements in divorces to what parents want.
"Everything should be in the best interest of the child, and this is making the best interest of the child secondary," said state Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana.
The bill passed the House 74-38 Tuesday after overwhelmingly clearing the Senate last week.
It now goes to Scott, who vetoed a similar measure two years ago. The vetoed legislation would have been retroactive and allowed people to modify existing alimony and custody agreements. The new bill is not retroactive in dealing with children, although it is unclear if courts would reconsider existing alimony agreements using the new rules.
The bill's House sponsor, state Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, said Tuesday the legislation "will make circumstances a little bit easier during a really emotional and trying time for families."
Senate sponsor state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said existing laws setting guidelines for child custody will remain intact. One such law creates a presumption that domestic violence victims should have custody of their children, not the abusers.
Opponents have argued the alimony rewrite is essentially an assault on women, who make up 97 percent of recipients in Florida. In part, that's because of a provision allowing alimony agreements to be renegotiated if the recipient's income increases by 10 percent, said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
Joyner cited an effect on those who choose to stay home and raise children, impacting their career development and ability to save for retirement if their spouse seeks a divorce.
"Think about the man or woman who leaves their profession because they love their spouse and love their children and want to provide the best a mother can do," she said on the Senate floor last week. "Wrinkles occur, a little love spots here and there and then you get kicked to the curb."
The debate became personal for some lawmakers.
State Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, became an advocate of such reforms after his own 2010 divorce from his ex-wife, Tiffany. He talked about his divorce on the House floor, saying what matters most to him in the bill is the 50/50 time split with children. In his case, he said, he had to fight to gain equal time with his two daughters.
Denying him equal time would have been "the same thing as issuing me a death warrant," he said. "You may as well give me the razor blades and a warm bath if I could only see Bailey and Sophie on Wednesday nights and weekends."