Bill to end alimony draws acrimonious debate in Tallahassee

04/03/2013 5:44 PM

04/04/2013 3:39 PM

Connie Bacher was awarded $1,400 in monthly alimony payments when her 23-year marriage ended in 2009.

At the time, she was living paycheck to paycheck and caring for her two daughters in Key West. But she considers the lifelong payments even more important now, she said.

“If I lose my alimony, I’ll have to cut my health insurance or quit buying my medications,” said Bacher, a bank loan officer who suffers from osteoarthritis in both knees and will likely need surgery later this year. “I don’t know what I’ll do.”

A proposal on its way to the Senate floor could force her to find an additional source of income.

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would put an end to permanent alimony payments, and allow the courts to modify existing arrangements between former spouses. The bill would also require judges to give divorced parents equal custody of their children, unless one parent could make a convincing case otherwise.

Proponents of the proposal say it would not end alimony altogether but make it more fair.

“This is something that has been horrible for people for so many years,” said Alan Frisher, co-founder Family Law Reform, a non-profit organization based in Lake County. “People have been stuck paying an order that ties them to their ex-spouse for the rest of their lives, even through retirement.”

But the idea has met fierce opposition from lawyers and people who stand to lose their alimony benefits.

David Manz, a Marathon-based attorney and immediate past chair of the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar, called the bill “anti-family” and “anti-woman.” He said it punishes women who stay at home by pushing them back into the workforce in the aftermath of a divorce.

Manz also believes the proposed legislation is unconstitutional.

“People have entered into agreements in which they gave up property in order to receive alimony benefits,” he said. “To take those rights away would be unconstitutional.”

Alimony-reform proposals have come and gone in Tallahassee, but this year may be different.The Senate is scheduled to take a final vote on the bill, SB 718, on Thursday. Its companion in the House, HB 231, cruised through two committees earlier in the year, and is awaiting a hearing on the floor.

If the bill were to become law, alimony benefits could no longer last more than half the length of the marriage. There would be new caps based on the paying spouse’s salary, and the benefits would stop when the paying spouse retired.

“I want to make this so people can get divorced and get on with their lives,” said Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, who is sponsoring the bill in the House.

Workman pointed out that family court judges would have discretion to go outside of the guidelines when necessary.

Still, the proposal has sparked emotional testimony from people on all sides of the debate.

At a recent hearing in the House, Guido Albarran, of Deerfield Beach, likened his alimony payments to “financial enslavement.” He said he gives half of his salary to his ex-wife, making it nearly impossible to support his aging mother and disabled brother.

“It’s hard enough to retire in this day in age, let alone to retire and take care of two parties, one of whom has no stake in the game to control costs,” Albarran said.

The custody provision has also been intensely debated, with opponents saying equal time sharing would limit the child support payments made to some parents.

Frisher, of Family Law Reform, believes the critics are mostly family court attorneys who would lose business if the bill passes. He said his group and other opponents “are not against alimony,” but rather “the perpetual use of it.”

“Divorce is stressful enough,” Frisher said. “At least with this legislation, there will be some consistency and predictability to the law.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report. Miami Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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