TALLAHASSEE -- Former spouses saddled with perpetual alimony payments, rejoice.
The Florida Legislature is here to help.
On Thursday, the House passed a contentious bill that would end permanent alimony payments, and enable the courts to modify some existing arrangements between ex-spouses. The proposal would also require judges to give divorced parents equal custody of their children, unless there were 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.
But 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 non-profit 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, 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. 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.”
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 unhappy in its own way,” she said.
But Republican women — joined by 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 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.”
Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, called the bill the most “gender-equalizing piece of legislation that we have seen all session.”
After the vote, Workman said he was pleased to see Florida follow the example set by Massachusetts, the only other state to embark on alimony overhaul.
He was planning to talk to the governor as soon as possible, he said.
“I’m sure he will see it my way,” he added.
Miami Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.