Southwest Florida family law attorneys said a law rewriting Florida’s divorce laws and awaiting Gov. Rick Scott’s attention could have major positive and negative implications for child support payments, child support payments and child time sharing.
The proposal, which marks the second time lawmakers have sent a child support overhaul to Scott, includes a formula for judges to use when deciding child support payments and does not include a retroactivity provision, which the governor blamed in part for his 2013 veto.
The bill replaces permanent alimony with new formulas based on marriage length and spouses’ income. These formulas help set the amount and duration of payments.
It also advises judges to introduce an equal division of time between parents and children. But supporters said it allows judges to deviate from the timeshare and alimony formulas depending on the circumstances.
“It’s kind of a good thing. There was no structure for alimony payments,” attorney Augustin “Gus” Simmons of the Simmons law firm in Fort Myers said of the overhaul legislation.
“It kind of gives lawyers a way of predicting the ranges for their clients,” he said. The current law that defines alimony says nothing about amounts, Simmons said, leading attorneys to hire forensic accountants to find out what people involved in their cases are making.
He said that the abolition of perpetual alimony is not surprising as the changes in society have taken hold. “Permanent maintenance has been on the line for a while,” he said. “Marriages don’t last that long, people get married later in life.”
In addition, he said, there are now same-sex marriages and cases where the husband can stay at home and the wife is the main breadwinner.
“The legislature is not perfect. But I think the agenda is well intentioned,” he said.
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Attorney Devin Mace of the Fried and Fried law firm of Fort Myers had some reservations about the changes to timeshare, formerly called custody, and alimony.
“It’s not a guarantee of 50-50,” Mace said, adding that judges could start at 50-50 when it comes to timeshares, but that they don’t have to stay there.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the change that people think,” he said.
Opponents of the proposal said the bill was biased in favor of child support payers and unfair to stay-at-home mothers. They cited provisions that allow a court to change child support payments if the recipient’s income increases only slightly or the payer reaches retirement age.
The child custody provisions, they said, could put the best interests of the child ahead of the law’s emphasis on equal time sharing. That could create problems in cases involving abusive or neglectful parents, they claimed.
However, Mace said there are safeguards that help in some situations. “That [state] The Treasury can make changes (for child support) for either party,” he said.
According to Mace, the language about different types of alimony has been changed in favor of a formula-based method that could make determining alimony easier. “It doesn’t mean it’s going to get better,” he said. Current maintenance calculations are based on actual needs and actual proven expenses with supporting documents.
Potential problems, he said, are unlikely to arise until someone takes advantage of them.
As an example, he pointed to Rehab Alimony Now, which allows spouses who need training to get back into the workforce to receive alimony to help them retrain or learn a new skill.
If the rehab doesn’t work, the alimony recipient could have it turned into a permanent alimony.
According to the new proposal, once the maintenance period has been set, it cannot be changed.
Another area that could spark some activity before the proposal ever becomes law relates to the fact that the legislation will allow pending alimony change cases from October 1st to use the new law.
“In my opinion, at least through October 1, this motion for pending cases will have the most dramatic impact on courts, attorneys and clients,” Simmons said. “This is for the following reason: if you benefit from the changes, you and your attorney will do everything in your power to delay the case beyond October 1, 2016. Alternatively, if the changes jeopardize your case, then you and your attorney will do everything in your power to bring the case to court before October 1, 2016.”
He said the pending aspect will make things interesting. “There will be some strategy,” Simmons said.
A spokesman for the Lee County courts said the 20th Circuit judges were up to date and knowledgeable about the law and legislative changes, but could not comment on court rulings or the court decision-making process.
“However, citizens of the 20th Circuit can be assured that all judgments will include fair facts and comply with all laws, even though laws may change,” said Sara Miles, public information officer for the 20th Circuit.
This is the fifth year the issue has appeared in legislation, so far unsuccessfully.
The Florida News Service and The Associated Press contributed to this report. Connect with this reporter: MichaelBraunNP (Facebook) @MichaelBraunNP (Twitter)