State Sen. Tom Lee, a divorced dad, leads charge for changes in custody laws

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.

“This time is different,” said Tom Lee’s attorney, Michael Edenfield.

Calls to Amy Lee’s attorney were not returned.

Lee formerly served in the Senate, rising to be its president, before leaving in 2006.

His initial petition said the fact he no longer has those duties, with their year-round travel responsibilities, means he can spend more time with his children. He says in his court filings that it’s in their best interest.

While he returned to the Senate with last year’s election, he doesn’t have the time-consuming responsibilities of being its president, Edenfield said.

Further, Lee’s petition says his income has fallen sharply. That coupled with the fact that his children would be spending more time with him if his petition is granted, his child-support obligations should be lower.

The petition doesn’t specify how much time he wants with his children or the support payment he is seeking. A financial affidavit submitted last year states Lee’s gross income, primarily from his job as vice president of his family’s construction company in 2010, was $42,720.

While a financial disclosure report he filed with the state upon returning to the Senate lists his income for 2011 as $81,195, that’s far below a high of $733,758 as recently as 2004 during the housing boom.

Lee acknowledged that his life experiences, including his divorce, affect his work as a legislator. But he said his amendment to the alimony bill had more to do with the changing nature of American families than his own custody challenges.

“The 21st Century view of the family is that mother and fathers are equally equipped today to help manage the lives of their children,” he said.

Under current law, there is no presumption of which parent should have primary custody of children, though men’s groups have long contended that women are favored. Generally, divorce laws across the country have evolved to reflect the growing prevalence of two-income families and the changes in parental roles that has brought about.

The alimony legislation passed by legislators was pushed heavily by a group called Family Law Reform. The group had not sought Lee’s amendment, though it applauded it.

“We appreciate Sen. Lee having the confidence in us to add this important amendment to our bill, and we are delighted with his support of the entire bill,” said Alan Frisher, president of Family Law Reform.

Lee persuaded Rep. Ritch Workman to add the provision to the House version of the alimony bill, Workman said.

The bill passed in both chambers by large margins. Gov. Rick Scott has not indicated if he will sign it, but Workman said he was confident the governor would give his approval.

Tampa Bay Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.