Alimony: Allies and enemies wage feverish campaigns to get DeSantis to signal or veto an overhaul

The years-long battle over whether to revise Florida alimony and child support laws reached a climax last week when the Florida Senate turned the 1796 Senate bill over to Gov. Ron DeSantis for approval or veto.

SB 1796 would allow more ex-spouses to opt out of permanent alimony and would create a 50/50 presumption of part-time employment for a divorced couple’s children.

Supporters and opponents claim to have served DeSantis petitions signed by thousands of people (not necessarily Floridians) asking him to sign the law or veto it. The Phoenix has requested details of the petitions.

DeSantis’ predecessor, Rick Scott, vetoed similar legislation in 2013 and again in 2016.

Proponents say SB 1796 is a long-overdue modernization of Florida divorce laws that would, in part, allow alimony payers to phase out payments four years after reaching retirement age.

Opponents say it will unravel decades-old divorce agreements as ex-spouses reach retirement age and cut income for aging recipients who have been promised lifetime alimony.

Michel Buhler, treasurer of an advocacy group titled Florida Family Fairness, said the protections in SB 1796 would protect ex-spouses who lose permanent child support from impoverishment.

“SB 1796 and Florida Family Fairness Inc. have attempted to balance the need and right of long-term support payers to retire while ensuring the most vulnerable recipients are protected by having a way to help them to contest the termination,” Buehler wrote in a letter to Phoenix after the publication of this story.

He emphasized these points: The recipient’s excluding dependents’ income must not be less than 130 percent of the US poverty line (about $18,000 a year for a one-person household and about $43,000 for a family of five, according to the American Council on Aging ). The recipient could not be rendered incapable of providing for basic needs and necessities. Even agreements that expressly excluded future changes, such as those in which a spouse gave up their share of the marital property, could not be changed.

Marc Johnson, the group’s chairman, issued a statement on Friday. It states, among other things: “For far too long, the process has given divorce attorneys the upper hand during the divorce proceedings. It’s time to modernize Florida’s family court laws by making the process fairer and more predictable for all parties while reducing litigation costs.”

The Florida Bar’s Family Law Section and the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers oppose provisions in SB 1796 that allow retiring spouses to change old agreements, arguing that the protections are insufficient to help aging ex-spouses financially to protect. These organizations had supported a negotiated compromise that failed to abolish permanent alimony in future divorces, but not retrospectively.

These rights organizations also reject the 50/50 presumption for child time-sharing, arguing that this may pressure some parents to charge less alimony in order to have more time with their children, while others use it as a tool to Reducing their child support payments could benefit.

Tampa Family Court Judge Philip Wartenberg, chair-elect of the Bar Association’s family law division, is among those asking the governor to veto the bill.

“I worry about the mother giving up other things, like financial relief, that are badly needed for her household just to secure the right timeshare,” Wartenberg told the Phoenix after SB 1796 was passed by the legislature. “There’s this concern that people will come asking for as much time-sharing as possible so it might reduce child support payments.”

The elements of the bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Joe Gruters, who represents portions of Sarasota and Charlotte counties and is chairman of the Florida Republican Party, include:

  • Provisions that allow for the cessation of perpetual maintenance both for the future and retrospectively
  • A legal presumption that divorcing parents share custody of their children 50/50, which also informs how much child support parents pay their ex-spouses
  • Elimination of adultery as a factor in determining alimony

As of Monday morning, DeSantis had not announced any action on the bill.

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