TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate on Wednesday approved a plan to overhaul the state’s child support laws, making another attempt at a contentious issue that has led to vetoes of three similar bills in the past decade.
After years of wrangling, the Florida Bar Association’s Family Law Division and advocates for the overhaul of the child support system have approved this year’s proposal. The bill would abolish so-called permanent alimony and create a marriage-length-based alimony formula.
But one group that could be badly affected by the proposed changes – mostly older women who worked at home to raise children and boost their ex-spouses’ careers before they divorced – has been left out of the months-long negotiations.
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“Gosh, we’re a group of 3,000 women,” Camille Fiveash, a Milton woman on permanent child support, told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview just before the Senate voted 34-6 in favor on Thursday the adoption of the measure agreed. “It’s a handful of men (calling for an overhaul) and they’ve grown accustomed to them, the rich, and locked us out of the negotiations. We have something to say because it affects us. It can be worded very carefully so as not to be unconstitutional, but it applies retrospectively.”
Fiveash is among members of the First Wives Advocacy group who have been traveling to Tallahassee to try and fend off legislation for the past decade. Permanent alimony is their main source of income, and without it, Fiveash says, many women would be impoverished and, in some cases, homeless.
But law sponsor Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who has also pushed similar laws in the past, has claimed the measure would not unconstitutionally affect existing child support rules, a concern voiced by Gov. Ron DeSantis when he vetoed it last year appealed against a maintenance law. Former Gov. Rick Scott twice vetoed similar bills.
“As you know, this has been a long journey. I think it was vetoed three times. In the last 15 years, I think it’s been 10 times that,” Gruters, an accountant, told senators Thursday. “The goal was to do two things: get rid of permanent alimony and try to streamline the process and make it more predictable, and try to create a formula-like thing that allows families to keep more of their wealth that has itself.” accumulated over the years.”
Proponents said the bill (SB 1416) would enshrine a court decision in a 1992 divorce case into law, which judges use to guide retirement decisions.
Gruters thanked lobbyists Lisa Hurley, who represents the Bar Association’s family law division, and Nelson Diaz, who represents Florida Family Fairness, a group that has spearheaded efforts to change the child support system.
“When we finally sat down and worked out every single item in this bill, we finally had a bill that I think everyone, 95 percent of the population, agrees with,” Gruters said.
This proposal still needs to be approved by the House of Representatives. While trying to abolish permanent alimony, it would impose restrictions on other types of alimony. For example, the measure would provide for a five-year cap on “rehabilitative” alimony payments.
Also, alimony payments would be based on the length of the marriage and, with some exceptions, could not exceed the lesser of the alimony recipient’s “reasonable need” or 35 percent of the difference between the parties’ net incomes. Permanent maintenance could not be granted for marriages lasting less than three years.
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 housing costs for a short time.
Sue Savage, a 62-year-old Naples woman on permanent child support, said she was concerned that the proposed abolition of child support and limits on the duration of child support would deprive her of income if her ex-husband made a change is requested and granted on their settlement agreement.
When asked how she would handle it if her alimony was abolished, Savage told the news service, “That’s a good question. Selling my house and living in my car I guess. I hope it gets vetoed.”
Sen. Lori Berman, a Boca Raton Democrat who voted against the bill, questioned Gruters about the bill’s retirement provisions and retroactivity.
During Wednesday’s plenary debate, Gruters told her: “Here’s the deal: if you have an agreement that can be changed, whether we pass this law or not, it will still be able to be changed. If it’s unmodifiable and we pass this law, it still won’t be modifiable.”
Berman said in a phone interview Thursday the changes could result in “some bad repercussions.”
“I asked the sponsor if there was an age limit for retirement and they said ‘no’ so that’s where you’ll see the changes. Then this whole question of living with and being supported by someone else. It’s very vague, very unclear,” said Berman, an attorney.
The bill would also allow judges to “consider the adultery of either spouse and the resulting economic implications in determining the amount of alimony, if any, to be awarded.”
Savage pointed to this proposal while criticizing the bill.
“We’ve been a debt-free divorce state for a quarter century now, and we’re going to burn people at the stake again for cheating on their spouse? That’s crazy,” she said.
This year’s version of the bill does not contain a controversial proposal that would have required judges to start with a “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 bills.