Despite some public opposition, alimony reform is moving to the Senate — the Florida Bar

Despite some public resistance, the maintenance reform moves into the Senate

Sen. Joe Gruters

The measure to allow the courts to award alimony to either party in the form of “temporary alimony, bridging alimony, rehabilitation alimony or permanent alimony at equity” while removing the term “permanent in nature” from the statutes went through the Senate committee on April 5 for Rules of Procedure.

Sarasota Republican Sen. Joe Gruters’ bill, SB 1416, passed 15-2 and is now ready for the Senate.

“Members, we’re back,” said Gruters, who is supporting this reform package for the third time. “The maintenance bill presented to you today is the result of extensive negotiations between the parties involved, which have taken place over the past year and a half.”

Gruters told the Rules Committee that the proposed reforms give divorcing couples more predictability and consistency by setting clear, definitive parameters for the courts when it comes to the amount and duration of alimony payments.

The bill provides guidelines for the court to decide whether to reduce or terminate alimony due to a payer’s retirement. The guidelines codify existing case law from the 1992 Florida Supreme Court decision in Pimm v. Pimm.

“The guidelines are not new and therefore would not adversely affect existing child support payments,” Gruters said.

Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, asked Gruters to clarify the backlash, which some argue still lingers in the proposal.

“Some of the proponents insist that the bill is still retroactive, and I want you to clarify for the record why it isn’t,” Burgess pleaded.

“The retrospective word gets used a lot,” Gruters said. “If you have a modifiable agreement now, it will still be modifiable. This year we have followed the current case law. We have codified and solidified all of these laws. If it is an unchangeable agreement, you still cannot change this agreement.”

Many opponents of the measure from the 3,000-member First Wives Advocacy Group spoke out against the bill. On behalf of the group, Camille Fiveash told the committee that no one consulted with her group before drafting the bill.

“Didn’t our governor make that clear when he said, ‘Don’t bring back any retroactive or unconstitutional legislation’?” Fiveash said regarding Governor DeSantis’ veto of similar legislation last year. “That’s it. It’s retroactive.”

Another First Wives member, Cynthia Luce, said the measure would burden the judges.

“It all falls back on the judge,” Luce said. “Our judges are already overwhelmed. Now you want him to dictate every reason he makes a decision?”

“You’re going to hear some opposition today, but we previously had massive opposition from two completely different quarters to every single provision of this bill — the Advocate Group and the Reform Group agreed on every single thing,” Gruters said.

Driver of Gruter’s point home was Family Law Section chairman Phillip S. Wartenberg.

Last year, when both chambers passed SB 1796, Wartenberg told The News that the legislation would retroactively rescind existing agreements, sparking bitter custody battles and endangering children.

“Last year’s version of this bill contained unconstitutional retroactivity,” Wartenberg told the Senate committee. “The provisions have failed to codify the long-standing case law of Pimm v. Pimm. This bill does. It codifies Supreme Court precedents that have been in place for over 30 years. The section prefers that to an alternative like the one we saw last year when we fought very hard for a veto.”

Wartenberg said the section represents all sides in marital disputes and asked the committee for its full support. Democratic leader Sen. Lauren Book and Republican Senator Clay Yarborough of Fernandina Beach cast the only two dissenting votes.

“This is appropriate and not unconstitutional retrospectively in terms of applying existing precedent to existing alimony,” said Wartenberg. “Many of the cases you hear about that are subject to change have always been subject to change under the Pimm standard.”

Wartenberg said the section, along with members of the Florida Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, discussed with Sen. Gruters and other stakeholders to develop this legislation

Gruters said he was determined to bring all sides together after last year’s measure was rejected.

“This law was dead after it was rejected last year,” Gruters said. “There was no organized lobbying. What I did was get the groups together and say let’s get in a room, let’s figure out each and every problem to try to do what’s best for the families in Florida. The law makes that clear and the goal is to help families keep most of their wealth for the long term.”

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