TALLAHASSEE — After three vetoes of similar measures, a proposal to revise the state’s child support laws — one of the most emotional issues Florida lawmakers have tackled in the past decade — is back on track in this year’s legislature.
Proponents of the change in law and the Florida Bar Association’s family law division, who have had heated arguments over the issue in the past, say they have reached an agreement on the latest version.
Left out are the “First Wives,” a group of mostly older women who have traveled to the state capitol year after year to plead with Republican leaders to scrap existing child support agreements from the chopping block.
As in previous versions of the bill, the main source of contention this year is a proposal that would eliminate so-called “permanent” alimony. The measure would set up a process for ex-spouses who are paying alimony to request changes to alimony agreements if they wish to retire.
Related: In Florida, the battle for child support payments can be brutal
Supporters of this year’s legislation (SB 1416 and HB 1409) say it would statute a court decision in a 1992 divorce case, which judges use to guide retirement decisions.
The bills would allow judges to reduce or stop child support, alimony, or alimony payments after considering a number of factors, such as: B. “the age and health” of the person making payments; the professional retirement age; “the economic impact” that a reduction in maintenance would have on the recipient of the payments; and the “motivation for retirement and likelihood of returning to work” for the person making the payments.
Philip Wartenberg, a Hillsborough County family law judge and chair of the Florida Bar Association’s family law division, said that unlike a similar bill vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year, the judges didn’t do it would oblige to change alimony payments when someone retires.
Related: DeSantis vetoes controversial child support bill
“It’s not a ‘must,’ meaning an automatic right to a pension, which we rejected in last year’s bill, which we felt was really biased in favor of payers,” Wartenberg told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview. “That’s a ‘may’. It’s very clear.”
But Robert Doyel, a former family law judge who is now retired, disagreed.
“The amendment part of the bill doesn’t say anything about what it applies to, so it applies to any situation, any order previously entered. So it’s absolutely retroactive,” Doyel, a former law professor, told the news service. “They cheat you by saying it’s not retroactive.”
Proponents of change have spent 10 years revising laws that have not been updated in decades. Many of the proponents are affluent professionals who claim that lifelong child support obligations have forced them to work well past the time they wanted to retire.
Michael Buehler, chair of the Florida Family Fairness Committee, said in a statement that his group supports the deal brokered with the Family Law Section.
“Florida Family Fairness is pleased that we have reached an agreement with the Florida Bar Association’s Family Law Division to end permanent child support payments and create a statutory pension law for child support payers. Anything that brings clarity to this difficult process and ends permanent alimony is a win for Floridians,” Buehler said.
DeSantis’ veto last year marked the third time that bills have made it through the Republican-controlled legislature, only to be quashed. Former Gov. Rick Scott twice vetoed such legislation, with a 2016 standoff over the matter resulting in a near-riot outside Scott’s office.
Related: Florida’s child support carousel drains parents, costs kids
In its 2022 veto message, DeSantis highlighted concerns about the bill (SB 1796) that would allow ex-spouses to have existing child support agreements modified.
“If CS/CS/SB 1796 were to become law and apply retrospectively, as the legislature intended, it would affect unconstitutionally acquired rights under certain pre-existing marriage agreements,” the governor wrote.
Jan Killilea, who founded the Facebook group First Wives Advocacy Group a decade ago, said she “unleashed an angry mob” when she began speaking out against a proposal aimed at making permanent child support payments retroactive in 2013 abolish.
Killilea said she opposes the current bill in part because it lacks enforcement provisions that require ex-spouses to meet alimony obligations. Killilea said her ex-husband owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in child support payments, but the courts did not compel him to pay the money. She predicted the law would have dire consequences for older women whose only source of income is child support payments.
“It’s really sad that we are the ones affected by this law, but we have no voice,” she said.
The bill, set for consideration by the Senate Tax Policy Committee on Thursday, has sparked panic among women in the First Wives group, who have joined forces on Facebook and Twitter.
“It’s a mess. It’s an absolute mess,” said Camille Fiveash, a 62-year-old woman from Milton who has been married for 30 years and whose ongoing alimony is her primary source of income.
Fiveash is among those women who claim that permanent alimony is their only armor against poverty and homelessness. Most child support recipients did not work outside the home while raising children and supporting their ex-husbands as the men climbed the corporate ladder.
Many of the women said they were willing to give up assets such as family homes or retirement investments in exchange for permanent alimony that they believed would last a lifetime.
“I’m going to be penniless and dependent on the state and I’m going to collect food stamps and everything else,” Fiveash said.
In addition to eliminating permanent alimony, this year’s proposal would set a five-year limit on rehabilitating alimony. Under the plan, people married for less than three years would not be eligible for alimony, and people married for 20 years or more would be eligible for payments for up to 75% of the length of the marriage.
The identical House and Senate bills would also allow alimony payers to seek amendments if “a supportive relationship exists or existed” involving their ex-spouses in the previous year. Critics like Doyel argue the provision is vague and could apply to temporary housemates who help dependents cover living expenses for a short time.
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 based his 2016 veto of a child support bill on a similar child-sharing provision. The Department of Family Law has strongly opposed the inclusion of the child sharing provision in previous iterations of the alimony reform proposals.
Wartenberg said he found ex-spouses’ objections to the current proposal confusing.
“I can’t really explain it other than fear of what happened before and perhaps concern that this will do the same thing we believe previous bills were trying to do. At least that’s not how we see it. In fact, we were the ones who pushed for this language to be included last year,” he said. “We are satisfied with the product as it is currently written.”
By Dara Kam, Florida Intelligence Service
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