Debbie Leff Israel, the Weston woman who helped start the Florida Second Wives Club, won’t marry her fiancée because her salary can be used to recalculate what he pays to support his ex-wife.
Alan Frisher, a Brevard County financial advisor, was ordered to pay his former wife permanent alimony in 2003 when the couple divorced, a ruling he considers “abusive and unjust.”
The two are unlikely allies in a fight for alimony reform in Florida, a movement that began quietly about a decade ago but is now gaining ground around the country and earning the attention of legislators and family law attorneys.
“Our premise is to educate legislators so they get a complete view of what’s going on, not just one side,” says Frisher, co-director and spokesman for Tavares-based Florida Alimony Reform. “The laws on the books were constructed from the early ‘50s and a lot has changed since then. Women are working, they have equal rights and the economics [of marriage] are quite different.”
While the grassroots movement is comprised mostly of men, more and more women, primarily second wives, are joining in for the same reasons Israel did. Under current law, Israel’s salary as a math professor at Broward Community College can qualify as a factor in the alimony wars if she marries fiancée John Kelapire and his former wife requests more money. That’s because when the paying ex-spouse has fewer expenses — the result of sharing expenses in a re-marriage — a judge can order an increase in alimony.
“That’s just not fair,” Israel says of the law. “It doesn’t encourage people to be self-sufficient and it ties you to the ex for life.”
Israel says she could’ve been awarded permanent alimony when she divorced but chose to receive it only for a set time. “It was in my own best interest,” she says, adding that skipping permanent alimony prompted her to become self-sufficient more quickly.
In the overwhelming majority of divorces, some form of alimony is awarded to the lesser-earning spouse, usually the wife. But as women earn more and become the breadwinners, they, too, are on the paying end, and those numbers are likely to grow. Though no figures are kept, experts say most alimony orders are for a limited period of time to give the ex-spouse time to become self-supporting. Permanent alimony cases are in the minority; the concept was created to protect women who had stayed home for decades to raise a family and had few, if any, marketable skills.
Before changes in 2010 and 2011, there were several types of alimony, either through statute or court rulings. These included temporary alimony (from date of filing through final judgment), permanent alimony (indefinite), rehabilitative alimony (designed to help the ex become self-supporting) and lump sum alimony. Case law had also established “bridge the gap” alimony (short term payments for a specific purpose) and nominal alimony (a minimal amount that can be increased if circumstances change).
Florida Alimony Reform wants to do away with permanent alimony entirely, replacing it with a concept the organization calls “long-term durational” alimony, which would end when the payer reaches retirement age.
Frisher cites various FAR members who have been forced to continue paying ex-spouses even in retirement, when their take-home pay drops and alimony eats up a larger percentage of their income. “Modifications are allowed, but it’s expensive to go to court,” he adds. “And you get very different results depending on the judge. Given the same set of circumstances, you may get a totally different ruling in Brevard than in Broward. We want to make sure the law is consistent and predictable.”
Earlier this year, FAR pushed for a bill that would’ve given former spouses a better chance at trimming or ending their permanent payments. It passed the Florida House but never reached a vote in the Senate.
The current alimony statute has already been rewritten several times. About seven years ago, the law was amended to permit courts to reduce or terminate alimony if a woman was cohabitating in a marital-type relationship. (Alimony can be terminated if the recipient remarries.) In 2010 and 2011, more changes ensued, including a revised definition that sorted marriages into categories of short term (up to six years), moderate (seven to 16 years), and long term (17 years and up.) It also stopped the clock of the marriage at the date of filing, not when the divorce was final, an important distinction because the 2010 law also established “durational alimony,” which capped the alimony at the length of the marriage for short-term and moderate-term marriages. It did not do that for long-term marriages. Stopping the clock on the marriage is important because by making the marriage-end date fall on the filing date, it shortens the length of the marriage as well as the length of potential alimony payments.
However, in 2011, changes allowed durational alimony to be used in long-term marriages as well, designating permanent alimony as the alimony of last resort.
Florida is not alone in amending alimony statutes. In 2011, Massachusetts overhauled its alimony laws. It wrote formulas for alimony depending on the length of the marriage but it also left it up to the court’s discretion to order alimony for an indefinite length of time in marriages longer than 20 years. There have been similar efforts in other states, including New Jersey and Tennessee.
Kira Willig, who practices and teaches family law as an adjunct law professor at the University of Miami, says the changes reflect an evolving society. “The focus now is not on the standard of living during the marriage but what the needs and necessities are [of the alimony recipient],” she says. “The conversation is about how can we get this person self-sufficient, how much can she realistically earn.”
FAR’s Frisher, however, says changes don’t go far enough. What’s more, most permanent alimony payers are still on the hook for life because the 2010 and 2011 changes to alimony law don’t apply retroactively.
To gear up for next year’s legislative session, FAR has mounted a full-court press, hosting a series of town hall meetings around Florida, including one in Weston, that will culminate with a statewide town hall in Tampa Saturday. It’s also been lobbying sympathetic legislators.
But some family law attorneys say the alimony statutes have already been amended to reflect the times and that there are provisions in existing law to accommodate income changes triggered by everything from job loss to retirement. Most attorneys, including Willig of FAR, also agree with FAR that Florida should establish a formula for alimony as many other states have already done. (Florida has a formula for child support and equitable distribution of assets but not alimony.)
“This guarantees uniformity in rulings across the state,” she says. “However, you don’t want the statute to take away too much of the judge’s discretion.”
She also concedes that it’s expensive to amend an alimony settlement in court or to prove an ex-spouse is cohabitating in a supportive relationship while receiving alimony. But she worries that the changes proposed by FAR are “an attempt to slowly chip away at the practice of alimony. I think this is the beginning, not the end, of proposed alimony reform.”
Frisher disputes that. “We are not against alimony,” he says. “We are against the permanency of it and sometimes the unjustified amount paid.”