The Florida Legislature has grappled with the issue of alimony reform for more than three years. Twice, the Legislature passed bills. Twice, the governor rightfully vetoed the proposals.
During this entire time, no study has been conducted, or even formally requested, to determine the actual impact changes would have on the fathers, mothers, grandparents and children involved in a divorce. If alimony reform is necessary — a point that is far from settled — then it should be done in response to an empirical, well-reasoned analysis rather than arbitrary formulas based on anecdotal evidence.
The proposed bills the Legislature considered were based on personal evidence and reactions to exceptional circumstances. Proponents of the past legislation relied on empty assurances and wishful thinking stating that the proposed time periods and amounts of alimony would not harm Florida residents, especially women and children. While the retroactivity and changes to child-sharing agreements were among the most egregious parts of the bills, the absolute lack of evidence-based research clearly highlighted the capriciousness of the alimony bills.
An all-inclusive task force needs to be established before drafting and introducing new alimony legislation in the 2017 legislative session. We should listen to learned voices such as Cynthia Lee Starnes, an alimony-law expert and professor at Michigan State University’s law school. Starnes says reform of the economics of divorce should be undertaken only after careful deliberation and consideration, including a comprehensive understanding of how the changes would impact various groups.
It is absolutely necessary to include all stakeholders and interested parties’ opinions in the discussion before considering another reform bill. Men’s rights groups, women’s rights groups, judges and lawyers that specialize in divorce law, legislators and the family-law section of the Florida Bar all need to have a forum to voice their concerns. The creation of such a comprehensive task force would allow for more-thoughtful legislation that does not favor one party or another in alimony negotiations.
The task force can also look to other states, all of which have laws regarding divorce and the redistribution of marital assets. Massachusetts, for example, adopted new alimony laws in 2012 after a multiyear task force made recommendations. By reviewing the alimony laws and formulas of other states and determining what has been successful we can decide if the same standards should be applied in Florida.
Arbitrary and capricious determinations should not be standards when people’s lives are at stake. Divorce is an emotional and confusing experience. The ramifications are huge, not only for the men, women and children directly involved, but also for all Floridians. The Legislature should make sure the consequences of any legislation are purposeful and not a surprise once a new policy is put in place. A task force should address these issues and needs to be convened now so that state lawmakers are properly prepared for next session.
State Rep. Lori Berman represents District 90 in Palm Beach County. State Rep. Cynthia Stafford represents District 109 in Miami-Dade County.