First Wives are urging DeSantis to veto reform permitting rich ex-husbands to reverse baby assist guarantees

They call themselves the “First Wives” club, but unlike their Hollywood counterparts, they say they’re the ones in the crosshairs.

Camille Fiveash of Pensacola said she was pushed and shoved, followed and received death threats in the halls of the Florida Capitol.

She and other women whose ex-husbands want to break free from divorce agreements, some of which are decades old, say they have been harassed on social media, called “alimony leeches” and publicly fat-shamed.

It’s a pattern of angry, alimony-paying ex-husbands that likens ex-wife Jan Killilea, a champion of an informal group of “first wives,” to a “hate group.”

Such is the climate in which ex-spouses have been squabbling this year over the state’s Child Support Act, which abolishes permanent child support payments, including retrospectively, and makes custody policies more favorable to fathers. Besides less controversial goals, it could also subject them to lesser maintenance obligations.

The Senate bill of 1796, passed despite strong objections in the House and Senate and not along party lines, goes to Governor Ron DeSantis for approval. Twice before, in 2013 and 2016, former Gov. Rick Scott vetoed similar legislation.

Watch out for the First Wives

So credible was the evidence of animosity between the warring factions that some of the First Wives said a state senator concerned for their well-being instructed his staffers to watch over them during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Feb. 28 when they offered to testify against SB 1796.

“Right here in this Capitol, a man pushed me, I was followed by a man, and I received death threats — death threats! — because of this bill,” Fiveash said at the hearing.

Fiveash and others credit Senator Jason Pizzo, a Miami-Dade Democrat who serves on the committee, with this protection. He didn’t deny it.

Upon hearing Fiveash’s complaint, Pizzo encouraged her to report such abuse to his employees and he promised to investigate it.

When asked if he dispatched peacekeepers during the hearing, Pizzo replied, “I take care of everyone.”

Barbara DeVane, in blue, with Florida NOW, the state’s branch of the National Organization for Women. Credit: CD Davidson-Hiers

Barbara DeVane, a veteran lobbyist for the National Organization for Women’s Florida Chapter, or Florida NOW, says a tight-knit group of ex-husbands and their second wives have been making life miserable for first wives for years while pushing for legislation exonerating them paying alimony and granting them broader custody rights that they can use as a bargaining chip.

“You know these moms are going to give up anything to get custody,” DeVane said. She describes the men as wealthy and influential — well able to contribute money and otherwise insinuate themselves to lawmakers in their support reform campaign.

Typically, mothers continue to be the primary caregivers for children, DeVane says. She noted that the vast majority of parents who have given up their careers to care for children during the COVID-19 pandemic have been women who have sacrificed wages and careers. She also noted that women are still paid less than men for the same work.

A significantly different version

Family law attorneys from the Florida Bar Family Law Section and the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers say they helped negotiate what they described this year as more sensible reform legislation that would end permanent alimony payments in future divorce cases.

But that’s not the legislation that emerged from the Senate appropriations hearing, where lawmaker Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican, proposed a significantly different version that creates a presumption of 50/50 child timeshare and permanent support arrangements can be reversed retrospectively. Gruters, who is also the leader of the Florida Republican Party, did not disclose why he supported the change — a departure from the direction of his original legislation — or where it came from.

“We have an amendment that rolls back all this good work,” said Andrea Reid of the Florida Bar Association’s family law division, whose support for the bill evaporated when Gruters changed it on Feb. 28. Now, she said, SB 1796 will do, harming many and benefiting few.

“You shouldn’t be making retrospective changes,” said Philip Wartenberg, a marriage and family law attorney and Tampa judge. “We’re trying to protect these people.”

“Tens of thousands of cases are being reopened,” Wartenberg added. “The road traffic regulations will be changed drastically.”

The ex-husbands driving the reforms say it’s time to end permanent alimony payments – including retrospectively – and they want to start phasing out payments upon reaching retirement age. SB 1796 also eliminates adultery as a factor in determining alimony.

In smaller numbers, there are also alimony-paying ex-wives who feel the same way. One is Natalie Willis, who testified in support of the bill and supported Gruters’ statement that the end of perpetual support “allows recipients to become independent and move on with their lives.”

“Her life still revolves around a marriage that ended many, many years ago,” Willis said, gesturing at the First Wives in the hearing room.

The real benefactors?

“This codifies the right to annuity,” said Marc Johnson, chairman of Florida Family Fairness, which campaigns to end permanent child support. “Florida is in the minority of states that have permanent child support. Our research shows Florida is behind the times.”

Not so, says Elisha Roy, Florida state president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, whose members represent both men and women in divorce cases. Roy insists few states allow aging alimony payers to waive divorce settlements made years ago, which often include permanent alimony payments dependent on negotiated compromises on the division of money, assets and time between children.

As for the 50/50 assumption about child time-sharing, Johnson and other SB 1976 proponents say it’s just old-fashioned to approach it any other way. With the Speaker of the House also campaigning for more fathers to be involved, sentiment looks favorable for the 50/50 rule to be enacted this year. It still allows judges to deviate from the presumption based on 20 other conditions designed to protect the best interests of the child.

Roy said the suggestion put Florida out of sync with other states.

“We will be the second state to do this,” Roy said. “I was a primary writer and co-author of legislation in 2008 that eliminated custody and visitation requirements in Florida. … The legislation I drafted in 2008 gave us a head start.”

Roy, Reid, and Wartenberg predict that the real benefactors would be ex-husbands who feign interest in spending more time with their children, but really just want to reduce their child support payments. The children of these broken marriages will be caught in the crossfire.

“The unintended consequences are likely to matter to our most vulnerable – who didn’t ask to be put in the situation in the first place,” Roy said.

“We just hope that we can convince [DeSantis] that this law is not just bad policy, it’s really bad for Florida families,” Reid said.

Wartenberg, a judge who hears post-divorce requests for changes to the divorce settlement and enforcement measures, said the new law, if enacted, would put women at a significant disadvantage.

“These are five to 10 monetary, reform-minded gentlemen versus thousands of recipients who are mostly women,” said Wartenberg, who serves as a post-divorce judge hearing requests for divorce settlement amendments and enforcement actions.

Speaking from his experience in court, Wartenberg said, “I worry for the mother who is giving up other things, such as financial relief that is sorely needed for her household, just to secure the right timeshare.” He adding, “There is a concern that people are coming and asking for as much time-sharing as possible as it could reduce child support payments.”

“Sounds like every woman here has a case”

Despite repeated claims from proponents that SB 1976 was “non-retroactive,” Reid and the other family law attorneys insist on allowing long-term alimony payers to terminate permanent alimony arrangements when they reach retirement age.

Pizzo offered an amendment in the Senate appropriations hearing that would have removed any confusion by specifically stating that the key provisions apply only to divorce cases filed after July 1 of this year. Gruters asked the committee to reject it, and the amendment was rejected.

Johnson said DeSantis is well-positioned to enact the legislation, which was twice defeated by another governor. He said advocates are confident that the governor’s 2022 “parental rights” initiatives — supporting anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-critical race theory and anti-LGBTQ interests among parents — will help them assert themselves.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Chris Sprowls’ “paternity” initiative advanced around the same time Gruters changed his child support bill. With this year looking like Father’s Year, 2022 could be more favorable than it used to be for passage of alimony reform, 10 bumpy years in the making.

The First Wives argue that no year should new law be allowed to end child support and custody agreements made decades ago, and they hope DeSantis will protect their rights by opposing the changes like Scott did . They also say SB 1796 would apply to pending divorce cases, including those in which a wealthy spouse of retirement age could be exempted from paying alimony after a long marriage.

After hearing testimony from a number of First Wives about alimony and child support arrears, even Senator George Gainer, one of the Senate’s oldest members, from a conservative district in northwest Florida, said SB 1796 was confusing that the reforms would force the courts into new ones Litigation buried and that “retroactivity cannot be tolerated”.

“There are too many questions,” Gainer said. “Sounds like every lady here has a case.”

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