FL House Votes Alimony Reform

February 27th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Florida may be on the road to sanity in its spousal support laws.  The state’s House of Representatives voted 83-30 in favor of House Bill 549 that would reform alimony laws.  Most importantly, it would do away with lifetime alimony in all but exceptional cases.  Read about it here (Daily Commercial, 2/25/12).

Opponents of Florida’s alimony statutes have long said that the state was far behind the times in its patrician view of an ex-wife’s need to be supported by her ex-husband after they divorce.
  Exhibit ‘A’ in their case against the state’s existing approach to alimony are permanent awards.  Indeed, for Florida judges, the default position for all marriages that end after 17 years or longer is that the husband pays the wife, not until he retires, but until he dies.

So if a man marries at what’s currently the national average for men, 28 years old, and his wife divorces him when he’s 45, he’ll pay her until he’s put in the ground, which would be, again on average, over 30 years.  Assuming the wife married him at the national average age for women, 26 years old, and stayed at home to raise the kids during their marriage, she could live all of her adult life and never earn a penny in wages.

Amazingly, the National Organization for Women, that has long championed women’s working and earning, considers such an arrangement just fine, thank you.  NOW, along with alimony lawyers threatened with a loss of income, oppose prohibition of lifetime alimony in Florida, and apparently any reform at all.

Some divorce lawyers, as well as the National Organization for Women, have expressed opposition to the bill. NOW said wives who stay home, raise children and then see their husbands leave them when they get older must be protected, according to the Capitol News Service.

It would be hard to imagine a law more likely to promote divorce than Florida’s current alimony statute.  Most sensible people view this country’s astonishing rate of divorce to be a pox on societal stability and well-being.  Surely “family values” Republicans should do just that.  After all, what could be more enticing to divorce for a woman who’s disdained earning a living than the prospect of a nice, fat check every month of every year until hubby finds his only release from his eternal obligation to her – death?  If she remarries, her checks stop, so why remarry?

Moreover, what could possibly be more of an encouragement to women to not educate themselves, train themselves, work, earn and save?  What could possibly be more of an inducement to goldbrick, to not contribute to the polity, than Florida’s promise of lifetime alimony?  If she gets a job, the checks stop or decrease in amount, so why lift a finger?

So the public policy arguments in favor of alimony reform are clear and unassailable.  Generally speaking, from a societal standpoint, marriage is better than non-marriage and working for a living is better than idleness.  Alimony gets it wrong on both counts.

Then there’s that old bugaboo of every divorced man faced with alimony – imputation of income.  The truth is that, it matters little what he actually earns; Florida judges make their decisions on what they think he can earn and are loath to change it.  So let a major recession come along and his income plunge, likely as not he’ll find no relief from his permanent obligation to pay the woman who dislikes him enough to divorce him.

Anyone who has gone through a messy divorce probably has an alimony nightmare to share.

A 76-year-old man can’t retire because he has been paying alimony for 27 years to a woman who abandoned him and their five children.

A 68-year-old man had alimony reinstated against him 15 years after divorce — for a 12-year marriage. His ex-wife gets 60 percent of his Social Security plus a widow’s pension from a previous marriage.

A man paying alimony for four years lost his business, house and health during the recession when a judge refused to decrease payments to an ex-wife who works full time.

These stories came from members of Florida Alimony Reform, or FAR, some of whom testified before House and Senate committees considering proposed legislation that would end “permanent” lifetime alimony in favor of “long-term” support that has a foreseeable end.

Of course HB 549, even if enacted into law, would scarcely bring fairness to the men who see their wives walk out on them.  It’s a small step toward sanity, but hardly the type of sensible, fact-based legislation for which we might hope.

The bill would eliminate [permanent alimony] and replace it with durational alimony of 50 percent of the length of the marriage; end alimony at retirement or age 67; and exclude a new spouse’s income and assets from being considered in determining the amount of alimony. A judge would also be required to consider the likelihood that divorce means both parties would have a lower standard of living, instead of requiring the payer to support the payee in the standard of living established in the marriage.

It is the 21st century, and high time state legislators and judges realized the fact.  In the United States of the 21st century, there is no impediment to adults working and supporting themselves.  They should do so.  The default position regarding alimony should be that they can.

Divorce should be treated as what it is – an end to the relationship between two people.  Just because they once promised “til death do us part,” doesn’t mean they’ve kept the promise.  Indeed, in almost half of marriages, they haven’t.  Alimony pretends at once that the marriage is and isn’t over.  Again, judges should wake up to the facts of life in the brave new world.

What all that means is that alimony should be very narrowly tailored to individual situations.  It should be the exception, not the rule.  If one spouse is disabled and can’t work and earn, then spousal support is appropriate to supplement whatever disability income the person receives from other sources such as SSI.  If one spouse has devoted years to raising the couple’s children, then he/she should receive spousal support for a period of time sufficient for the caregiver to bring his/her training and skills up to date and enter the workforce.

And spouses who are very old and unable to go out and get a job should support each other whether they’re married or not, unless of course they have retirement income sufficient to do the job.

Beyond that, there is no reason for alimony to exist at all.  It’s an artifact of a bygone era in which better-heeled women were seen as delicate flowers unable to endure the callouses work might place on their unblemished hands.  (Of course the vast majority of women have always worked for a living for the simple reason that they had no choice.  Alimony is mostly about protecting the ability of more affluent women to maintain their standard of living.)

The blatant hypocrisy of NOW’s support for lifetime alimony is beyond disgraceful.  But I suspect, as is so often the case, they’re fighting a rear-guard action.  However much the organization may wish to preserve the privileges of a very small group of affluent, mostly white women, the tide of the battle is against them.  Gradually, even state legislators will discover what so many others already know – that if women want to be treated as the equals of men, the many privileges of being a woman must go the way of the whalebone corset and the fainting couch.

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