Could the fourth time be the appeal?
After governors vetoed three previous attempts to change Florida’s child support laws, the latest proposed revision will go to the full Senate for a vote.
The Family Law Division of the Florida Bar Association and proponents of overhauling the alimony laws clashed for a decade. But the former enemies have banded together this year to back a plan to get rid of “permanent” alimony and make a host of other changes.
But a group of mostly older women who depend on the payments are asking lawmakers to block the overhaul and say they have been left out of discussions about changes that could turn their lives upside down.
Several members of the First Wives Advocacy Group addressed the Senate Rules Committee before the panel approved the proposal (SB 1416) on Wednesday.
As with previous versions of the bill, their primary concern is a proposal to eliminate permanent alimony. The measure would set up a process for ex-spouses who are paying alimony to request changes to alimony agreements if they wish to retire.
Supporters of the law say it would enshrine a court decision in a 1992 divorce case into law, which judges use to guide retirement decisions.
GOP: Does not affect existing child support payments
Senate bill sponsor Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who has pushed similar legislation in the past, tried to reassure the committee Wednesday that this year’s version would not unconstitutionally affect existing child support rules, a concern raised by Gov. Ron DeSantis was voiced when he vetoed a child support bill last year.
This year’s proposal “referred to current case law,” Gruters said, citing the 1992 ruling.
“So what you can do now after the case law, let’s codify all these laws now and do that on the rule of law. So we’re basically just solidifying that. So from a retroactive standpoint, no, because if anything was previously modifiable, it’s still modifiable. If it’s an unchangeable agreement, you still can’t change that agreement,” he said.
But Leisa Athey, a permanent child support recipient, said the bill included only “strategically selected parts” of the decades-old case.
Athey said judges sometimes agree to permanent alimony when assets have been dispersed from an ex-spouse.
Beneficiaries: Women were not consulted on bills
“When people get divorced, there’s not always an equitable distribution,” Athey said. “The way judges fight that is that they award permanent alimony so each party just gets away with their fair share.”
Under the proposed changes, alimony recipients have no recourse if, for example, a business has been dissolved or transferred to someone else, Athey argued.
“How do they come back and get their half of the business together?” she said. “It’s over and done with. … Listen, this happens all the time with divorce.”
Proponents of change have spent 10 years revising laws that have not been updated in decades. Many of the proponents are affluent professionals who claim that lifelong child support obligations have forced them to work well past the time they wanted to retire.
Last year’s veto by DeSantis marked the third time a bill had passed through the Republican-controlled legislature, only to be defeated. Former Gov. Rick Scott twice vetoed such legislation, with a 2016 standoff over the matter resulting in a near-riot outside Scott’s office.
In addition to eliminating permanent alimony, this year’s proposal would impose a five-year cap on so-called “rehabilitative” alimony. Under the plan, people who have been married for 20 years or more would be entitled to payments for up to 75 percent of the marriage’s duration.
The bill would also allow people paying child support to apply for amendments if “a supportive relationship exists or has existed” involving their ex-spouses in the previous year. Critics argue the provision is vague and could apply to temporary housemates who help dependents cover living expenses for short periods.
Camille Fiveash, a 62-year-old Milton resident, has long campaigned against efforts to abolish permanent child support. She told the Senate committee Wednesday her group has about 3,000 members nationwide.
“Most are Republican women, most are stay-at-home moms, homeschooled moms. Men often go out and work, and women stay at home. It still happens today,” she said.
Fiveash said the women had not been involved in negotiations over the past year.
“We weren’t asked. We were never asked and we were never asked for our opinion,” she said.
This year’s version of the bill does not contain a controversial provision that would have required judges to start with the “presumption” that children should divide their time evenly between parents. Scott largely based his 2016 veto of a child support bill on a similar child-sharing provision. The Department of Family Law fiercely opposed the inclusion of the child sharing provision in previous iterations of the alimony reform proposals.
An identical House Maintenance Bill (HB 1409) must clear another committee before it can go to the House as a whole.
Originally published Apr 5, 2023 @ 6:42pm