Florida Moves Toward Reform of Alimony Law

man repairing girl bike smallApril 11th, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

The State of Florida may be poised to take sensible action on its long-outdated alimony laws. Read about it here (San Francisco Chronicle, 4/4/13).

A bill recently passed the Florida Senate by a vote of 29 – 11. A companion bill awaits action in the House. If enacted, the bill would do away with permanent alimony. No longer would former spouses spend their entire post-divorce lives supporting the spouse with whom they no longer wanted any relationship.

In addition, the bill would set up a system to guide judges in awarding alimony. Specifically, for any marriage that lasts less than 11 years, the bill would create a presumption that alimony would not be paid. If the marriage lasts between 11 and 20 years, there would be no presumption regarding whether alimony should be ordered. For marriages lasting longer than 20 years, there would be a presumption that alimony should be granted. The length of time during which alimony would be paid would generally be half the length of the marriage. Spousal support awards would be limited in the above three categories to 25%, 35% and 38% of the paying ex-spouse’s gross income.

 Of course litigants can produce evidence for rebutting the above presumptions, so judges are free to make orders accordingly.

If passed and signed into law, these bills would constitute a small step in the direction of sanity in the divorce industry. The bills are far from ideal, but improve a situation that is both wildly unpredictable and patently unfair.

[Republican Senator Kelli] Stargel said the bill is intended to bring consistency to the awarding of alimony.

“There was no consistency,” she said. “You would see people who have been married three and four years who were paying permanent alimony for the rest of their life. You were seeing people who have been married 30 years and got five years of rehabilitative alimony. It was all across the board and there were bad outcomes on all ends.”

In this era in which women have the ability to earn as much as men, the notion that one spouse should support the other for years or even decades after they’ve divorced simply makes no sense. Indeed, it’s worse than that. It not only obviously encourages divorce but it also discourages productive work. After all, if an ex-wife can look forward to getting a living “wage” from her former husband, why would she endure the slings and arrows of the workplace?

Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel of Lakeland, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the changes create “a fair framework” that reflect the changing roles in marriages.

“Back in the days of ‘Father Knows Best,’ there was this understanding that one spouse stayed home and one spouse worked,” she told reporters afterward. “Nowadays, you see all kinds of combinations. You see women making more than men, you see both people working … you see the men staying home.” She said alimony should be viewed in light of those changes. As I’ve said before, there should be a rule – no alimony. There’s simply no reason why it should exist and many why it shouldn’t. But there should also be some narrow exceptions to that rule. If one person is too old or too physically or mentally impaired to work and earn, and the marriage is of sufficient duration, the other person can help to support him/her. Likewise, if one of the exes has spent all, or almost all, his/her time caring for the couple’s children, that person should have a year or maybe two in which to get back into the job market. But beyond those exceptions, divorce should mean a parting of the ways, not a never-ending financial obligation to someone you don’t like.

Of course the Florida bills, if they become law, don’t reach that level of reasonableness. No, divorcing spouses in the Sunshine State will still be able to petition courts for the right to endless support and, I suspect, the pro-woman bias we see so often in family courts will mean that many judges find the legal presumptions rebutted. It would make for an interesting law review article to track the excuses relied on by judges for rebutting the presumptions in this situation but not that one. I’d put good money on proposition that ex-husbands would have a much harder time rebutting the presumptions than would ex-wives. Maybe some day we’ll find out.

For now though, it’s enough to note the altogether predictable and hypocritical “reasoning” certain lawmakers use for opposing the bills.

Opponents in the Senate said the measure would hurt a broad spectrum of women — from those with young children to those whose former spouses are retiring…

Democratic Sen. Gwen Margolis of Miami objected, saying many women who were in short-term marriages are busy raising young children and would be hurt by those conditions.

“If they ever needed alimony, that’s when they needed it,” she said. “And that’s when the sum that they get is the least. Now that’s not fair, that’s not right and that’s not taking responsibility…”

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat, said the provision generally limiting the length of alimony to no more than half the time of the marriage would create hardships for women.

“This could create problems for women who have young children and do not have enough time to acquire skills that help them be self-sufficient,” she said.

So as the feminist legislators see it, no matter now reasonable, no matter how fair these bills might be, if they have the slightest tendency to shorten a former wife’s gravy train, they shouldn’t become law. Never mind that, according to analysts at the U.S. Census Bureau, on average, women under 30 now outearn their male counterparts by 8%. Those of course are exactly the ones likely to have young children and, due to their higher earnings, end up paying spousal support.

But irrespective of who might benefit, those opposed to the bills seem to have lost any concept of some very basic things. For example, if the law changes, maybe behavior will as well. Maybe young women will think twice about refusing to work for a living. (Indeed, most of them already do.) If they know they won’t get alimony, maybe they’ll stay in the workforce and not let their skills erode. And of course that’s what feminists have been crying about for decades – more women in the workplace. So what do we get when there’s a bill that would promote that very thing? Nothing but wailing that women who choose not to work won’t get paid as much by their exes. The hypocrisy is stunning.

Into the bargain, if the bills nudge women toward work, they may nudge men toward childcare. After all, in any couple, someone has to do the job and if she’s more at work, he may need to be more at home. That would tend to equalize both partners’ earning and caregiving. So if divorce comes along, courts would be more likely to order equal custody. Think of that!

I suspect the opposition has done so and, predictably, they don’t like it a bit. Feminists talk a lot about getting more women in the workplace and men becoming “less masculine,” a concept which could mean “more nurturing” if you’re a feminist. But again, put a bill in front of them that would tend to do both and they scream bloody murder.

Still, despite the irresponsibility of the opposition, it looks like Florida may be moving slowly and hesitantly toward the 21st century.

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