The judge stood in the windowless courtroom in Clearwater and stretched his back, attempting to sort through the latest accusations in the six-year divorce case of Dr. Mark Flood and Blake Taylor.
Taylor sat in a wheelchair, her face pale and thin, as her lawyer outlined her husband’s failure to pay alimony for a year. Flood had started sending the payments again, but they were always late. He’d allowed her health insurance to lapse, and she has a circulation condition that causes her to faint often.
Flood, in a dark blazer and blue Oxford, looked ready to jump out of his chair. His temporary alimony payment of $22,000 a month seemed extraordinary but apparently not when compared with the former Laser Spine Institute surgeon’s million-dollar income.
“She’s just trying to con another month out of me,” he said angrily of Taylor.
“She’s not sick,” said David A. Maney, his attorney. “She’s a faker.”
“She had no support for 12 months,” Taylor’s attorney, Katherine C. Scott, countered. “Every month sends her into a state of panic. Will she or will she not receive support this month?”
Behind, a handful of women sat quietly, sporting “court watcher” stickers.
They were first wives, former homemakers in their 50s and 60s who relied on permanent alimony after decades of marriage and raising kids. All had sat where Taylor was sitting, their post-divorce lives a far cry from the ones their exes’ incomes had once provided.
They came to offer moral support, but they had a bigger battle to wage in Tallahassee.
The Florida Family Law PAC, made up mostly of alimony payers and their second wives, had worked frantically earlier this year to get legislators to pass a bill that would do away with permanent alimony and introduce guidelines to spousal support, sort of like child support.
The first wives had a plan to stall the legislation. But on this March day, as Taylor’s divorce hearing came to a close, they bustled around her wheelchair and pushed her out of the courtroom.
Alimony is among the most fiercely litigated issues in divorce court. Disagreements can often pitch a couple into another stratosphere of hatred and acrimony.
Taxpayer-supported judges spend days resolving disputes over late payments, unpaid attorney fees and hateful social media posts. Legal arguments and hearings sometimes continue for years, until there is no money left to divide.
The process has attracted a cottage industry of lawyers and consultants who know the financial stakes.
“Most family lawyers would talk the client out of stuff,” like oversized alimony requests or lopsided property divisions, said Judith McMullen, a professor of law at Marquette University who has studied alimony. “But all it takes is one party pushing it and the wheels come off.”
Alimony payers say the notion that alimony should be set based on one spouse’s need and the other’s ability to pay leads to wildly inconsistent results. The higher-earning spouse, most often but not always a husband, can also be ordered to pay for both sides’ attorneys, and the alimony demands don’t end at retirement.
People with smaller bank accounts tend to come to terms quickly, becoming part of the 95 percent of cases that settle.
Michel Buhler, 56, who works in the telecommunications tower industry, said he has been paying alimony for 14 years even though his ex-wife got a master’s degree and had a full-time nanny during their 16-year marriage.
He said his income fell in the recession, and when he tried to modify his payments, he lost a legal battle that cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said he can’t retire or downscale.
“The cycle of entitlement and resentment,” he said, “has a definite emotional impact on children long after the divorce is finalized.”
The ex-spouse who didn’t work during the marriage often experiences a hard fall, too. Some work minimum-wage jobs and live with friends or relatives.
“When we get old, the husband goes and finds somebody else, and they file for divorce,” said Maria Stewart, 56, a homemaker who never graduated high school and was married for 27 years. She now lives in Tallahassee in her daughter’s home and receives $2,000 a month in alimony.
“The courts can’t do anything,” she said. “The women are left with nothing.”
There’s not a lot of sympathy for displaced homemakers, says McMullen, the law professor. Her research has showed courts ordering alimony less often and for shorter lengths of time.
In 2017, 586,000 U.S. taxpayers said they paid $12.6 billion in alimony. But only 415,000 reported receiving support, of $10.5 billion, according to the IRS.
Enforcement of alimony payments is limited, so many of the women are owed huge amounts. Some say they have gone into debt, because exes stopped paying alimony. Some say they will have to work for the rest of their lives.
In November 2012, Jan Killilea was a divorced mother of three and alimony recipient who was working as a nanny when she read about a group of second wives who wanted to do away with permanent alimony.
She wrote an opinion piece that appeared on a news site.
“If alimony reform passes, then I can join the 1.1 million Floridians on food stamps,” she wrote. “I’ll be standing in line for my welfare check while my ex-husband is skiing in Lake Tahoe.”
Killilea’s letter led to her testimony before the Florida House’s civil justice subcommittee and a cover article in Time magazine.
Killilea, 59, had been an executive secretary and account executive when she got married in 1983 in Nevada. She had her first child at 23 and gave up her career. She followed her husband through nine corporate relocations, giving birth to two more children. They had two homes, five cars, a fishing boat and cash in the bank. They were moving to Florida after almost 25 years together, she said, when he met someone. In the divorce, Killilea was awarded alimony because she only had the ability to earn $12 an hour, according to a vocational consultant.
In 2013, she created the First Wives Advocacy Group on Facebook.
Then the backlash started.
“I unleashed an angry mob of men and their second wives,” she said.
Someone mocked her, creating the first husbands’ advocacy page. Posts referred to the first wives as leeches and parasites and the “Depends Club.” There were “get a job” posts and personal attacks on some of the more outspoken women.
The name calling can get ugly, as this recent Facebook post illustrates.
That year, the House and Senate passed the first reform bill. The women asked a number of organizations devoted to womens’ rights, such as the League of Women Voters, to write the governor. Republican Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it, because it would affect past alimony awards.
The legislation passed again in 2016. More than 10,000 constituents deluged Scott with emails and phone calls in support of the bill. Three thousand contacted him opposing it.
One day in April of that year, the bill’s opponents, led by the National Organization for Women, gathered outside Scott’s small reception room for a press conference.
Soon, a group of about 40 people supporting the bill crowded in behind them with signs, including Support Equal Parenting, a reference to a provision in the bill that encouraged judges to provide parents with equal time-sharing.
The two groups squared off, yelling at each other.
Ann Dwyer, a 74-year-old alimony recipient from Longwood who still works part-time as a bookkeeper, recalled that there was shoving and name-calling. “It was horrible. The poor governor’s receptionist was sitting at her desk stunned.”
Scott vetoed the bill again, writing that the “premise” of time sharing could put the “wants of a parent before the child’s best interest.”
When versions of the bill were introduced again in 2019, by Sen. Gayle Harrell in the Senate and Rep. Brad Drake in the House, both Republicans, the legislation again cut lifetime alimony. It also encouraged judges to give divorcing parents equal time-sharing.
One of Killilea’s biggest concerns, she said, involved a retroactive feature that would limit alimony to half the marriage. She knows women who would be cut off immediately under that scenario.
She continues to chase her own alimony payments. She says she found her ex-husband in St. Louis, then in Canada. Now he’s fled again and owes her back alimony of $339,244.
She doesn’t have any savings.
“I will work for the rest of my life if I’m lucky enough,” she said.
Killilea and the other alimony recipients knew that if the bill passed, they would be in trouble. There was a new governor now.
So they encouraged the First Wives Advocacy Group — with about 1,300 members — to contact the civil justice subcommittee. They hoped to stop the bill from gaining any traction.
Alimony has come a long way from its origins more than 3,700 years ago when a Babylonian king ordered that men must support women who had given them children.
English courts, ruled by church figures, ordered men who separated from their wives to financially support them until death.
But the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act of 1970 introduced the no-fault divorce. Recognizing that growing numbers of women were entering the workforce, the federal law suggested that alimony be awarded only when a spouse was unemployable and there was not enough property to divide.
But alimony has hung on as a way to compensate a woman, or a man, in a long-term marriage who stays home with the children. The reasoning is that both spouses should share the losses associated with the divorce, including one’s lost earning potential. Today, these are mostly baby boomers.
In 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 98 percent of those receiving alimony income were women.
A number of states and counties have adopted formulas that consider the length of the marriage and the difference in each spouse’s income. Indiana limits spousal support in most cases to three years. In 2011, Massachusetts limited alimony based on the length of the marriage and ended it upon retirement.
Brian M. Karpf, a member of the American Bar Association’s Family Law Section Executive Council and a Fort Lauderdale divorce attorney, believes it’s only a matter of time before Florida changes its rules. “Florida lags behind other states in terms of how it is handled.”
For several years now, legal minds have suggested it’s time for a task force in Florida to study alimony and produce a bill that’s fair for all.
The women wheeled Taylor down the ramp outside the courtroom in the bright sun.
Murielle Fournier, whose divorce the Tampa Bay Times chronicled in A Divorce from Hell, the Battle for Alimony and Emptied Pockets, pulled her SUV around to the ramp. Her ex-husband, Terry Power, has fled to Texas. She’d offered to give Taylor a ride home from court.
Kelly Jarvis, a member of the First Wives group, helped Taylor into the car as Killilea loaded the wheelchair in the back.
The judge had not found Flood, 58, in contempt, as Taylor sought, but he had ordered his alimony to be collected by the state disbursement unit so she would get it more regularly. Later, he would say Flood also needed to add her to his health insurance.
“If the law passes July 1, I’m done,” Taylor told the women.
“I’d get nothing,” said Jarvis, 58, a stay-at-home mother of three who was married to a doctor for 17 years and settled in mediation. “I’d have no way to support myself.”
They’d come to the hearing because they’d read online that members of the Florida Family Law PAC planned to be there to support Flood, but none showed up.
The backlash hasn’t let up, Killilea said.
“I think what connects all of us is the retaliation and the bullying and the stalking. It’s frightening,” she said as the women headed off to lunch. “It brings us together.”
Debbie Leff-Kelapire, a second wife from Sunrise and a spokesperson for the Florida Family Law PAC, said the group is not affiliated with the first husbands advocacy page on Facebook and disagrees with its content.
“That was originally a spoof page,” she said, “of a grown man sitting home playing golf all day while collecting alimony.”
When reached for comment, the administrator of the first husbands advocacy group page said, “we prefer to remain anonymous.”
Taylor and Flood’s divorce has been particularly caustic. It spawned a second lawsuit for defamation and invasion of privacy. Apparently, you can call your ex a narcissist, or “Narc” for short, on Twitter and not defame him. It was Taylor’s opinion, the judge had ruled.
Blake Taylor’s estranged husband has accused her of defamation for tweets like this one.
Taylor, 58, has amassed 24,000 followers on Twitter, sharing her experience in divorce court and poking at her ex-husband. She’s posted a photo of him in his underwear after he lost more than half his weight. She regularly complains she’s owed $276,000 in back alimony even though they aren’t even divorced yet.
The defamation lawsuit had been going on almost as long as the divorce.
Since the alimony reform bill was submitted to the civil justice subcommittee in early March, it has not come up for discussion. Rep. Bob Rommel, the Republican subcommittee chairman who sets that agenda, said he declined to consider it because it was controversial, and he didn’t feel there was enough time to evaluate it, given all they were already doing.
“People have called in and pleaded with him to at least have it heard,” said Leff-Kelapire, who started the Florida Second Wives Club in 2011 after learning her fiance’s ex-wife could come after her money if he couldn’t pay his alimony. “Let it go through the democratic process for a vote, but he’s not allowing that to happen.”
This past Thursday, when the bill failed to appear on the civil justice subcommittee’s calendar, many declared alimony reform dead in 2019.
Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
More by Leonora LaPeter Anton:
Blood and Truth: Could DNA prove him innocent? Florida doesn’t want to know.