TAMPA -- Advocates for alimony reform are cheering legislative votes this week to end the awarding of lifetime payments by the bread-winning ex-spouse.
But the legislation includes a less-publicized yet equally sweeping change. It would require judges to presume divorcing parents get equal time with children from their marriage, except under exceptional circumstances.
That amendment to the legislation came courtesy of Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon. Lee happens to be locked in a nearly two-year court dispute with his ex-wife to gain additional time with his children, as well as to lower his child-support payments.
Lee says the legislation will not benefit his case. He no longer pays alimony. Unlike aspects of the bill pertaining to alimony, the child time-sharing provision he added is not retroactive, and Lee said he made sure it was written that way.
“I insisted that this not apply to anything that I would ever be involved in because that would not be appropriate,” Lee said.
“My observation of the system is that it is broken,” Lee said. “It is overrun with cases. The judges often know nothing about what is going on inside the families that come before them. ...And the decisions have historically been biased toward women.”
Family lawyers who followed the legislation, however, say it appears Lee is letting his personal experience shape law affecting tens of thousands of ex-couples and their children.
“You can tell he’s very much an emotional stakeholder in this issue,” said Thomas Duggar, a Tallahassee lawyer who is chair of the legislation committee of the family law section of the Florida Bar, who raised concerns about the legislation when it passed before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Lee chairs. “I cannot support passing this ground-breaking legislation on a whim or on your emotions.”
Said Carin Porras, Fort Lauderdale-based chairwoman of the family law section of the Florida Bar: “The changing focus from what’s best for the child to what’s best for the parents is disturbing. It’s a cookie-cutter approach.”
Indeed, Lee does appear to be invested in the issue. Following Duggar’s testimony that 90 percent to 95 percent of cases are resolved before they get to a judge, Lee gave him a sharp sendoff.
“They never get to a judge because they can’t afford your fees, sir,” Lee said. “I’m glad you came here. I hope you feel good about what you do.”
Lee married the former Amy Carey, a member of a prominent Brandon ranching family, in 1992, and they had two children. They divorced in 2003, two years after the birth of their son, and Lee has since remarried.
Under initial terms of their marriage settlement agreement, Lee agreed to pay his ex-wife $1,750 a month in child support until his children turn 18, according to court files. He agreed to pay $2,100 a month in alimony for 47 months.
The two agreed that Amy Lee would have primary residential custody of their children. The children would alternate weekends between their parents and would stay with their father on Thursdays. Holiday and summer arrangements also were set.
An amended court filing submitted this week shows that the Lees have agreed to modify the child-support amounts three times, with payments rising then falling with little or no overt acrimony. Lee filed another request in 2011 and this time his ex-wife is challenging the request.