A bill that could end “forever alimony” is heading to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott after passing the Florida Legislature Tuesday.
The House passed the Senate family-law bill (SB 668) by a vote of 74-38 after Democrats tried but failed to tack on a last-minute amendment to ensure the bill can’t be applied retroactively to old divorce judgments.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican state Rep. Colleen Burton of Lakeland, said the bill was not retroactive, but Democratic critics said the bill’s language was “unclear” at best.
House Rules Chair Ritch Workman spoke against the amendment, saying he had spoken with Scott’s staff, who assured him they understood the measure would not be applied retroactively – suggesting the bill may find favor with Scott this year.
In 2013, Scott vetoed a previous attempt – carried by Workman – to modify alimony law “because it applies retroactively and thus tampers with the settled economic expectations of many Floridians who have experienced divorce,” the governor wrote in his veto letter, adding that the “retroactive adjustment of alimony could result in unfair, unanticipated results.”
Lawmakers have tried for years to change the way Florida’s courts award alimony. On one side, former spouses who wrote the checks said permanent alimony wasn’t fair to them. Their exes shot back that they shouldn’t be penalized for having trouble re-entering the workplace after staying home to raise the couple’s children.
In the debate, Democrats inveighed against the bill. State Rep. Cynthia Stafford of Miami, called it “one-sided and unfairly benefits the payor,” the person writing the alimony check.
Among other things, the bill allows the court to modify alimony payments if the person paying has a substantial “change in circumstances,” including unemployment or retirement. The bill provides guidelines for how to award alimony, but gives judges the last say, and asks them to prepare written findings to explain their decisions.
One guideline is that “for marriages of two years or less, there is a rebuttable presumption that no alimony shall be awarded. Another is “whether a party could become better able to support himself or herself and reduce the need for alimony by pursuing additional educational or vocational training.”
State Rep. Lori Berman, a Lantana Democrat, castigated the guidelines, saying they will lead to a “cookie cutter divorce” process.
Workman gave a personal debate about another section of the bill that encourages judges to let parents get their kids on a 50-50 basis. The bill calls on judges to begin with a “premise” that children should spend equal time with each parent when awarding child custody.
Certain evidence can still sway judges; for instance, if one spouse stayed home for years to raise children and tend to the home if both spouses agreed to it.
Workman, a Melbourne Republican who divorced in 2010, said the only thing he cared about was spending time with his two daughters.
“There is no perfect language out there when it comes to alimony and child custody,” he told the chamber. “Just look to the parents of Florida and give them this reform that is so overdue.”