Proposed Alimony Overhaul Pits Reformers Against Divorce Lawyers

Dec 7, 2012

After a failed attempt last year, advocates for alimony reform are back at it, trying to get Florida’s divorce laws overhauled. Supporters of the changes say current laws unfairly punish higher-earning spouses. But critics say, the proposed law unfairly favors them.

Debbie Israel leads a Florida alimony reform group called the Second Wives Club. She calls herself a potential second wife, except for one thing. Her fiancé is paying alimony every month until his ex-wife dies or remarries.

“I’m engaged to a permanent alimony payer and won’t marry him because of his permanent alimony obligation with the current laws that could potentially include my income in an upward modification,” she said.

During divorces, both parties can agree to alimony payments during mediation, and if they can’t agree, a judge sets it. Israel’s group is made up of women who are not only second wives but also women paying permanent alimony to their ex-husbands.  She says, permanent alimony doesn’t have a place in the modern era.

“These laws were created in a time—and I call them the June Cleaver days—where the traditional family roles were assumed,” she said. “And I know very few families that operate like that today.”

Professional divorce financial adviser Alan Frisher agrees that the laws need to change. He’s the leader of Florida Alimony Reform, the group that’s been lobbying for an alimony overhaul for several years. Last year, the group’s proposed bill passed the House of Representatives but didn’t make it out of committee in the Florida Senate.

“Believe it or not, I’m kind of happy that it didn’t pass last session because it gave us a full year now to really reorganize what we wanted to accomplish,” Frisher said.

The new alimony overhaul bill would ban permanent alimony in most cases. And it would not allow a second spouse’s income to be considered in any renegotiations. Also, it would take into account how long the marriage lasted and set parameters for the length of alimony payment and the size of the payments. Frisher says, some members of his group are paying $10,000 to $50,000 a month in alimony.

“We have a formula that takes into consideration incomes from both parties, similar to child support. So now that we can actually put numbers into a formula and it spits out an alimony amount that is affordable and that could be paid by the payer,” he said.

And if judges assess payments greater than the formula or for a longer period of time than suggested, the bill would require them to put into the record why they feel it’s necessary.

Melbourne Republican, State Rep. Ritch Workman, sponsored the group’s bill last session and is planning to file the new bill soon.

“So, what that will limit is, ‘Well, I didn’t like him, so I threw the book at him,’” Workman said.

He said, he wants to curtail divorce judges’ using high alimony amounts to punish unfaithful spouses.

“Would that not mean that that judge should also then use the adultery of the lesser earner and say, ‘Well, I’m not giving you alimony because you had adultery’? That’s never done. Never, ever, ever done. So, it does not work as a punitive weapon because you’re not using it punitively both ways,” he said.

But critics of the reform bill, which include the Florida Bar, say it would unfairly favor the alimony payer to the detriment of the payee. Bar spokesman, Tallahassee family lawyer Thomas Duggar, calls the bill “severely problematic.” His biggest issue, he says, is, if the bill becomes law, all existing alimony agreements would be eligible for readjustment in court.

“It would really flood our court system. Think about any alimony; you can now come back and modify it, even if you agreed with it. It would actually be a boon for the lawyers, because we would get a lot of business. But it’s not good public policy,” he said.

Duggar said, he thinks the movement is being driven by a small amount of people who don’t want to pay their alimony.

But House sponsor Workman said, the changes would be good for people on both sides of disputes.

“I don’t hate alimony. I hate the abuse of alimony. And my bill prohibits the abuse of it,” he said.

The bill is expected to be sponsored in the Florida Senate by Lakeland Republican, Sen. Kelli Stargel.