TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Could fourth time be the appeal?
After governors vetoed three previous attempts to change Florida’s child support laws, the latest proposed amendment will go to the full Senate for a vote.
The Florida Bar Association’s family law division and advocates for an overhaul of child support laws have been at odds for a decade. But former adversaries have banded together this year to back a plan to get rid of “permanent” upkeep and make a host of other changes.
But a group of mostly older women who depend on the payments are appealing to lawmakers to block the reform, saying they have been left out of discussions about changes that could turn their lives upside down.
Several members of the First Wives Advocacy Group addressed the Senate Rules Committee before the panel approved the proposal (SB 1416) on Wednesday.
As with previous versions of the bill, their main concern is the proposal to abolish permanent alimony. The measure would introduce a process for ex-spouses who are paying alimony to request changes to alimony agreements if they wish to retire.
Supporters of the law say it would codify a court decision in a 1992 divorce case that would help judges make decisions about retirement.
Senate bill proponent Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who has pushed similar legislation in the past, tried to reassure the committee Wednesday that this year’s version would not have unconstitutional effects on existing child support rules, a concern that Gov. Ron DeSantis raised expressed when he vetoed a child support bill last year.
This year’s proposal “reverted to current case law,” Gruters said, citing the 1992 ruling.
“So what you can do now, as part of the jurisprudence, is we now codify all these laws and make them the rule of law. So we’re basically just solidifying that. So, in retrospect, no, because if something was previously modifiable, it’s still modifiable. If it’s an unchangeable agreement, you still can’t change that agreement,” he said.
But Leisa Athey, a permanent child support recipient, said the bill included only “strategically selected parts” of the decades-old case.
Athey said judges sometimes approve permanent alimony when assets have been squandered by an ex-spouse.
“When people get divorced, there’s not always an equitable distribution,” Athey said. “The way judges fight this is that they award permanent alimony so each party just gets away with their fair share.”
Under the proposed changes, alimony recipients would have no recourse if, for example, a business was dissolved or transferred to someone else, Athey argued.
“How do they come back and get their half of the joint business back?” she said. “It’s over and done with. … Listen, that’s what happens with divorce all the time.”
Proponents of change have spent a decade trying to revise laws that have not been updated in decades. Many of the proponents are affluent professionals who claim that lifelong support obligations have forced them to continue working well past the time they wanted to retire.
Last year’s veto by DeSantis marked the third time that bills had passed through the Republican-controlled legislature, only to be defeated. Former Gov. Rick Scott twice vetoed such a bill, with a 2016 standoff over the matter leading to a near-crime outside Scott’s office.
In addition to abolishing permanent maintenance, this year’s proposal also limits so-called “rehabilitation maintenance” to five years. Under the plan, people who have been married for 20 years or more would be entitled to payments for up to 75 percent of the marriage’s duration.
The bill also says that people paying child support can apply for amendments if “they have or have had a supportive relationship with their ex-spouses in the past year.” Critics argue the provision is vague and could apply to temporary housemates who help dependents cover their living expenses for a short time.
Camille Fiveash, a 62-year-old Milton resident, has long campaigned against efforts to eliminate permanent child support. She told the Senate panel Wednesday that her group has about 3,000 members nationwide.
“Most are Republican women, most are housewives, homeschooled mothers. Men often go out and work, and women stay at home. It still happens today,” she said.
Fiveash said women were not involved in negotiations on the bill over the past year.
“We weren’t asked. We were never asked and we were never asked for our opinion,” she said.
This year’s version of the bill does not contain a controversial provision that would have required judges to start with the “presumption” that children should divide their time evenly between parents. Scott largely justified his veto of a 2016 child support bill with a similar child sharing provision. The Family Law Department strongly opposed the inclusion of the child sharing provision in previous versions of the alimony reform proposals.
An identical House maintenance bill (HB 1409) has yet to be approved by another committee before it can go to plenary.
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