Alimony has become a hot-button political issue in recent years. A bill to reform alimony worked its way through the Florida legislature earlier this year. Only the abrupt end of the legislative session following a budget impasse stalled what appeared to be the bill’s “sure bet” of passage. In fact, the bill, known as HB 943, follows a similar attempt by the legislature to reform alimony in 2013, which was vetoed by Governor Scott. The new bill, however, did not propose to retroactively undo existing alimony arrangements, leading many experts to believe that, once passed, the Governor would have signed it into law.
Whether it happens in 2015 or 2016, it appears that the future of Florida’s alimony laws will be changing.
Alimony is court-ordered payment from one (former) spouse to the other after divorce. The purpose of alimony is to provide financial support for the financially “weaker” spouse, or the spouse who has been financially supported or made less money than the other. Alimony differs from child support in that it is designed to provide for a former spouse directly, rather than for the children of the marriage.
In Florida, alimony comes in several forms, which courts may award as alternatives or in combination with each other, depending on the circumstances of the marriage. They are: durational, rehabilitative, bridge-the-gap, and permanent. Of course, where the circumstances warrant, the court may also decline to award any alimony at all.
Various factors determine the propriety, type, and amount of alimony. The length of the marriage is often the most significant factor in deciding whether to award alimony. The alimony statute dictates that courts consider marriages less than 7 years to be short, marriages greater than 7 years but less than 17 years moderate, and marriages 17 years or greater, long.
Judges may award alimony in short duration marriages only if there are written findings of exceptional circumstances. Rehabilitative, durational, and bridge the gap alimony are intended to provide avenues to allow a former spouse who is less financially stable to receive financial assistance for a limited period of time, until he or she is able financially support himself or herself.
Permanent alimony is more controversial for many reasons. Proponents of continuing permanent alimony argue that eradicating it will be financially devastate many women who, professionally speaking, took a back seat to their husband’s career. Without these women’s support, it is argued, these men never would have been successful. (The argument that it would hurt women stems from the fact that in the vast majority of cases, women are the recipients of alimony). However, opponents of the bill argue that divorcees must eventually stand on their own two feet and that the men should not be obligated to pay alimony permanently. Currently, permanent alimony may be awarded in marriages of long duration (greater than 17 years) if such an award is appropriate upon consideration of certain statutory factors. It may also be awarded in marriages of moderate duration if certain statutory factors are shown based upon clear and convincing evidence.
The controversy surrounding permanent alimony is what has spurred legislation to change it; as a result, the future of permanent alimony is in doubt. Two bills were introduced in the Florida legislature this past session to completely overhaul the current alimony statute by two different Polk County legislators. First, HB 943, co-sponsored by Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, cleared the House Civil Justice subcommittee on March 17. That bill would have discarded the durational designations (short-term, medium-term, and long-term marriages), and instead established two formulas for determining the lower and upper ranges of alimony payments as well as the duration of alimony. For marriages up to two years, a presumption of no alimony would exist. Although the Judge had the final decision, marriages up to 20 years would have resulted in alimony closer to the lower alimony formula (0.0125 multiplied by the years of marriage; that resulted would then be multiplied by the monthly income difference between he paying and the receiving spouse). Longer marriages should be closer to the upper range, according to the bill (using a multiplier of 0.020 in the above calculation). The existing bridge, most temporary, rehabilitative, and durational alimony all would have essentially morphed into durational alimony. Durational alimony would be between one-quarter to three-fourths the length of the marriage.
A similar bill, SB 1248, sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, also used a specific calculation for determining the amount of alimony. However, under that bill, permanent alimony would have still been possible – albeit quite rare – if a Judge chose to deviate from the guidelines.
With the legislature’s abrupt adjournment, however, both of these bills were stopped dead in the water.
Although these multiple efforts have not led to alimony reform becoming law, these lawmakers are not abandoning their cause. Alimony reform will continue to rank on the priority list of several politicians – two of whom are from Polk County – until a law is finally passed. This will change alimony awards – both the amount and likelihood of award – drastically.