Thursday, the Florida Senate passed alimony reform legislation (SB 718) by a 29-11 margin. The Senate sent a strong message to Floridians that current alimony laws will change. If proponents succeed in the House next week, permanent alimony will be harder, if not impossible, for spouses in long-term marriages to get.
The bill allows existing agreements to be modified to reflect the new law.
The ramifications of such a drastic move would be far reaching for everyone — payers, alimony recipients, children of divorced parents. Although there have surely been abuses under current law, rather than reform, the bill is a complete overhaul of a system that works — albeit not perfectly. Many divorces are handled through mediation, which is now required by law.
Divorcing couples are also opting for collaborative divorces in an effort to avoid a court battle, exert more control over the process and craft their own settlements.
Written as a remedy for a minority of men and women, the bill leaves the majority of alimony recipients at risk.
This bill would encourage divorce and reopen thousands of existing agreements negotiated in good faith.
“I have had calls from dozens of clients whom I have represented over the past 33 years who are just waiting for the new law to pass, to have me file petitions for them seeking to terminate their permanent alimony obligations,” said Evan R. Marks, family lawyer and former chair of the Family Law Section of The Florida Bar.
Spouses who gave up property or other rights, believing they could rely on a certain amount of money, will be vulnerable. Additionally, alimony would end if the recipient is living with another individual, even if that person is a roommate. The family-law section of the Florida Bar opposes the bill, arguing that it removes judicial discretion and is too loosely written.
Provisions exist in current law to address most issues the bill is supposed to solve. A payer with a “substantial change in circumstances,” earning capacity or retirement, can petition the court for relief. Already on the books is a law that ends permanent alimony in the event that the recipient no longer needs it because of a supportive relationship. Finally under current law, permanent alimony cannot result in the receiving spouse having more income than the payer. Durational alimony makes sense, too, but again, it already exists.
Also proposed is that, should an ex-spouse who is paying alimony remarry, the second spouse’s income should not be used to modify alimony upward. The bill’s authors are correct.
No income from a new spouse should be used to support an ex-spouse. However, at the core of this movement to change the laws is a desire to get rid of permanent alimony. For those who have been burned, that desire is understandable.
Many states have already tackled major alimony reforms. For Florida, it’s only a matter of time.
Many women, who statistically have the most to lose, are fearful.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, men 35 and older make 25 percent more than women of the same age. Women’s income drops 37 percent after divorce, compared to 22 percent for men, according to the U.S. Census bureau.
Regardless of what happens, this moment of uncertainty represents an opportunity for women to reorder their thinking about money and their own worth whether they work in the home or out. With either job, there is economic contribution. While today a couple may agree to order their families and careers in a way that requires one party to manage the home and raise the children, this career choice is impossible to value in a divorce negotiation and carries future risks.
That contribution should be understood, quantified and agreed upon in writing by both parties by prenuptial or other agreement. It’s not prudent to leave a family’s future up to current or future law. Part of both men and women’s responsibility is to grasp the state of the family’s finances.
Even for educated overachievers, fear or lack of interest in money management can paralyze people into inaction. Understanding and participating family finances can foster partnership and trust whether a couple stays married or not.
It could also help change the national conversation about alimony to a discussion about what the beginning and the end of a true partnership should look like.
Jennifer Failla is a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst ™, mediator and principal of PlanningThruDivorce, LLC with offices in both Florida and Texas.