Florida Family Bar Now Opposes Alimony Reform Bill it Helped Write

March 18, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

The fight to get Florida Governor Rick Scott to sign Senate Bill 668 took a step backward with the announcement that the Family Law Section of the Florida State Bar now opposes the bill it was instrumental in writing.  Read about it here (Orlando Weekly, 3/16/16).

Just before the end of its 2016 session, the Florida Legislature approved a bill to go to Gov. Rick Scott that has put the Florida Bar Association in an odd quandary: The Bar’s Family Law section is now urging the governor to veto a bill that, for the most part, it wrote, lobbied for and wanted to see pass this year.

If the reform measure is signed, the bill would alter the way courts determine alimony – it would give judges guidelines to decide alimony payments, limit the duration of alimony to recipients, eliminate "lifetime" alimony and spell out specific circumstances under which alimony awards may be modified or terminated. That’s something that Tom Sasser, an attorney from West Palm Beach and the former chairman of the Family Law section of the Florida Bar Association, who’s serving as the bar’s alimony spokesman this year, says has been sorely needed in Florida for a long time. 

"There are no guidelines that exist today for alimony," he says. "There’s a list of factors the court is to consider, but they are not arithmetical. We say certain types of alimony are available for certain length of marriages, but we don’t do a guideline. It’s highly discretionary in Florida, and that’s what the bill seeks to change. … It gives a framework to negotiate in, so you’re not dealing with extremes. That was really the biggest driving force behind this. Before, you were dealing with high levels of variability, and it was varying from county to county, courtroom to courtroom."

That’s right, pro-reform forces were careful to include all players in writing the bill and the legislature seems to have understood that everyone was on board with SB 668.  So why does the Family Law Section claim it can no longer support a bill it helped to write?

However, the bill also contains troublesome provisions. Among those, Sasser says, is a last-minute addition that eliminates guidelines for marriages that lasted more than 20 years and in those cases encourages judges to "equalize" income of the two former spouses. Sasser says that the whole point of the bill was to keep alimony awards from being arbitrary and wildly inconsistent, and that clause contradicts its very purpose.

Please.  A “last-minute” provision that barely alters the whole bill is the reason why family lawyers don’t support reform that “has been sorely needed in Florida for a long time?”  I don’t buy it.  If that single provision is a problem, fix it in the next legislature.  Pass a two-line bill next year, but don’t destroy all the long, hard work so many people put into this bill.

Interestingly, the article doesn’t mention just who it was who got the onerous clause inserted at the last minute, but my guess is it was the family law bar seeking an excuse to moot the entire bill.  That would be strange, but consider this: SB 668 would require judges to “equalize’ the incomes of former spouses married for more than 20 years.  Now consider this:  just last week, Florida family lawyer Mark Sessums took to the op-ed page of the Orlando Sentinel to tell us what he considered “fair” regarding alimony. 

If fairness were the desired result, the solution would then be simple: just equalize net income for a period equal to the length of the marriage.

So the clause that family lawyers now claim to oppose so vehemently that they want the entire bill to fail coincidentally was being urged by a family lawyer.  Of course Sessums may be the only family lawyer in Florida with that peculiar take on “fairness,” but somehow I doubt it.  My better guess is that there are enough like him to have inserted that particular clause in the hopes of killing SB 668.

Besides, if family lawyers are really so thrilled about the prospect of certainty in alimony payments, the concept of “equalizing” the incomes of the spouses hardly conflicts with that.  There are many reasons to oppose such a clause.  I enumerated a few of them in my first response to Sessums’ nonsensical piece, but uncertainty of outcomes isn’t one of them.

In short, I smell a rat in the Family Law Section of the Florida State Bar.

Meanwhile, the Orlando Weekly article seems to be on the Bar’s side.  Eschewing even the pretense of balance, writer Erin Sullivan quotes at length and in detail women receiving alimony and opposing reform.  But ex-husbands saddled with lifetime payments find no voice in the article.  Not one word.

Stranger still is the fact that the two women the article quotes utterly fail to make the case against reform.  The first, Ann Dwyer was married for 21 years during which time she worked only sporadically.  It’s been 28 years since her divorce and 24 years since she completed retraining.  She’s worked ever since.  And yet the article’s author wants us to believe that, in some way, a 24-year working career shouldn’t be enough for the Florida Legislature to tell the woman “You’re on your own.”

And of course since alimony reform is not yet the law in the Sunshine State and, even if it were, it’s not retroactive, her payments won’t be affected one whit.  She’ll continue to collect until her ex dies.  His last act on earth may be to sign yet another check to the woman he no longer likes or lives with.

Plus, the article discreetly fails to mention how much she’s been receiving from him all those years.  How much has he paid her?  At “just” $1,000 per month, she’s already gotten almost $300,000 from him, despite being gainfully employed almost all that time.

And naturally the writer wouldn’t want us to know what Dwyer’s ex does for a living or how much he earns or his fantasies about perhaps not working constantly until the day he dies just so his long-absent ex-wife won’t have to work too hard (she’s working 25 hours a week).  No, best leave that unsaid.  We don’t want to give readers a balanced understanding of the issue.

Then there’s the issue that’s really just a shibboleth. 

One provision of the alimony bill particularly rankles her, she says, and it’s a clause that notes that as little as a 10 percent increase in income can be enough for an alimony payer to request a modification of an alimony agreement. If, for instance, a woman making $10 an hour gets a $1 per hour raise at the job she takes trying to get back on her feet after divorce, her ex-husband could take her to court to reduce her alimony payment.

Nonsense.  Yes, 10% of $10 is $1.  But no one on the planet believes that such an increase in earnings would trigger a reduction in alimony.  An increase to $77,000 per year from $70,000 might, but not $1 per hour.  It’s just not enough for a judge to pay attention to.  And what ex-spouse would spend the money on a lawyer to go to court in the hopes of receiving whatever tiny reduction in alimony such an increase might produce?

Again, Sullivan couldn’t find a woman who’d be harmed by the 10% clause in the reform bill, so she went with Jan Killilea.

"I make $15 an hour working for a divorce attorney," says Jan Killilea, a Boca Raton woman who divorced in 2009 after 25 years of marriage. She says that she moved nine times over the course of her marriage to follow her husband’s career. "Now, if I get a 10 percent increase in my pay, my ex-husband, who made $365,000 last year, can take me in for a modification."

He could, but he won’t.  The extra $1.50 per hour just wouldn’t make enough difference in Killilea’s take-home pay to make it worth his while.  But again, Sullivan carefully omits certain key details, like how much Killilea’s ex pays.  Let’s see; he makes $365,000 per hear and she grosses $30k.  I can’t guess because, of course, there’s no rhyme or reason to Florida’s alimony orders.  (That’s one of the main reasons for reform.)  But suffice it to say that, with a marriage of 25 years and the stark difference between the earnings of the two exes, it’s a lot.

Maybe that’s why one commenter referred to Killilea as “jet-setting Boca Ski Club member Jan Killilea” and another wrote this:

March 182, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Jan killilea she claims she is living below the poverty line however she is living in a beautiful 400k home in Boca Raton, also has been seen in expensive resorts in Aspen and had had plastic surgery(breasts) in the last 2 years that is hardly someone living in poverty!

I of course have no inside information on Killilea’s financial condition, but again, with that discrepancy in income, her ex is certainly paying her plenty and will until the day he dies.

The combination of the Family Law Section’s sneaky turnabout on the reform bill and the Orlando Weekly’s scurrilous reporting make it clear that there’s substantial opposition to what the people’s representatives voted for.  That’s just business as usual when it comes to reforming family law.

We’ll see who Governor Scott values more – double-dealing family law attorneys or the people’s elected representatives.


National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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