The Legislature’s attempt to modernize Florida’s alimony laws is a dive into turbulent waters.
Since changes could imperil some divorcees’ income and affect many attorneys’ bottom lines, any attempts at reform were bound to face opposition. But the proposal makes a touchy issue untenable by blending reasonable changes with others that are overly broad and potentially unconstitutional.
Last week, the Florida Senate passed a bill (SB 718) that would make several changes to how alimony functions in Florida. The most prominent change would eliminate permanent alimony, which now allows a divorcee to receive regular payments from an ex-spouse for life. The bill, which has passed two committees in the House, would impose stricter guidelines for how many years divorcees could receive alimony and effectively would shorten the length of time it is paid out in most cases.
Supporters include, unsurprisingly, men who pay alimony to ex-wives. They argue that the system is based on antiquated notions of the husband as the sole money-earner in most couples. Opponents include divorce lawyers, the Florida Bar’s family law section, and divorcees who say the changes could hurt their ability to support themselves.
Some of the opposition to the bill is overstated. Yes, permanent alimony would be eliminated per se, but judges still could extend alimony payments for decades after a divorce.
Yet critics correctly point out that these changes are designed to limit judicial discretion and shift the advantage in court toward the husband, whom the legal system often views as responsible for his ex-wife’s financial well-being for years after the divorce. The current system has led to abuses and discouraged some divorcees from re-marrying, to avoid forfeiting alimony payments. But the legislative analysis provides no documentation that such cases are pervasive, and the same system has ensured that many women who sacrificed careers and earning potential to raise families at their husbands’ behest do not go from divorce to poverty.
The sweeping overhaul approved by the Senate would upset a massive system to fix a fairly narrow problem. One provision would oblige judges to award child custody to divorcing parents on a 50-50 basis except when certain conditions make such an arrangement dangerous or impractical. Another would cap alimony payouts, with 33 percent of the ex-spouse’s income being the max after long-term marriages.
Most important, the bill is very likely unconstitutional. Senate staff attorneys have warned that because the alimony changes would apply retroactively, they could violate provisions in the state constitution that prevent legislators from infringing on judicial decisions and prohibit them from passing laws impeding existing contracts.
During debate, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, supported the bill but conceded that it “isn’t perfect.” She went on, “Probably next year we are going to be here fixing some of these issues.” Instead, fix the bill now, before recklessly shaking up the state’s alimony system.
for The Post Editorial Board