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Alimony Reform A Hot Issue In Florida Family Law

When a couple divorces, one of the major legal issues to resolve is whether one of them will continue to support the other financially after the marriage ends. When a divorce decree orders the transfer of money, either periodically or in a lump sum, from one ex-spouse to the other to help support the recipient, that process is called alimony, spousal support or spousal maintenance.

Legislators, family law attorneys and other stakeholders are vigorously debating the future of Florida’s alimony law. Alimony is primarily controlled by state statute(s) and can be very different from state to state. Florida is in a group of states where alimony laws are mostly described as fairly traditional.

Traditional families; traditional alimony

Historically, alimony orders usually reflected traditional family norms. The husband, usually the main breadwinner, would pay spousal maintenance to his ex-wife on a long-term or permanent basis to keep her standard of living as close as possible to what she experienced during the marriage. Often the wife had not worked, and had stayed home to raise the parties’ children. The emphasis was on the husband’s career advancement, and therefore, the wife’s vocational skills were often not a priority for the family.

Proposed spousal maintenance legislation

Reflecting the traditional family model, Florida alimony law still allows the option of lifetime spousal maintenance. Legislation has been introduced that would eliminate the possibility that an obligor (paying spouse) could be ordered to pay alimony for the rest of his or her life, although the proposed law includes a narrow provision that could allow a long-term obligation even after the obligor retires if he or she is wealthy and the recipient is disabled or in dire straits.

A similar bill last session passed the Florida House, but died in the Senate.

Discontent with tradition

The debate over permanent alimony in Florida has emerged in part, in response to substantial changes in the “traditional” family model. Women have more economic options for work, career and self-sufficiency; economic problems have made long-term careers less stable; long-term partnerships of unmarried couples provide economic support without marriage; second and subsequent marriages, sometimes with children, create blended families that can strain the resources of ex-spouses carrying financial obligations from previous marriages.

Those who want permanent alimony eliminated in Florida make a couple of main arguments. One, they argue it is not fair for obligors to have to continue to support ex-spouses they divorced long ago, especially into retirement when their own economic circumstances change. Two, second spouses do not want their assets considered as available to their new husbands or wives to pay former spouses alimony. Three, subsequent spouses do not want their new spouses’ obligations to former spouses to impact their new family units negatively.

The bill

The proposed bill would largely restrict alimony availability. Some noteworthy provisions include:

  • The elimination of “permanent” alimony
  • Adultery would only be relevant if it negatively affected assets or income.
  • Alimony would automatically stop either when the court order designates or when the obligor reaches retirement age, unless the obligee (recipient) proves clearly and convincingly that he or she still needs the money and the obligor can still pay.
  • The marital standard of living would no longer be a factor the court must consider in an alimony decision and that each will have a lower standard of living would be a rebuttable presumption.
  • Assets acquired before marriage would not be “available” for alimony purposes, so a pre-existing fortune would be potentially off limits to the ex-spouse for support.
  • An obligor’s Social Security retirement benefits would not be available for alimony.
  • Income and assets of an obligor’s subsequent spouse or domestic partner would not be reachable in a court action for modification of a pre-existing alimony order.
  • The law would allow recalculation of existing alimony orders based on a schedule reflecting marriage lengths.

Opposition to the proposal

Opponents of the bill, including the Family Law Section of The Florida Bar, assert that the proposals in the bill are too one-sided to the benefit of obligors and do not leave enough discretion for judges to see that obligees are cared for properly after marriages end.

Whether or not the bill passes, alimony in whatever form it takes will always be a major issue to divorcing spouses in Florida. If you are contemplating divorce or need advice about modifying an existing alimony order, consult an experienced Florida spousal maintenance attorney.