State lawmakers consider quashing lifetime alimony
Terry Power spent nearly five years in divorce court. Child support wasn’t the issue. Neither was dividing up the assets.
The sticking point: alimony.
His final disposition was signed a few months ago, just as a long-fought battle to change the alimony laws in Florida began heating up. The Legislature is poised to pass legislation in the next few weeks that virtually eliminates permanent alimony and limits settlements for marriages that don’t last long.
Those behind the move to change the law say reforms are needed to help divorced people get on with their lives, to unleash them from their exes. Opponents say the proposed law takes away the discretion of judges and sometimes leaves divorced spouses — often middle-aged with limited job prospects — without any income.
As the reforms were percolating, Power said, he was being raked over the courtroom coals.
“My divorce lasted longer than a Tom Cruise marriage,” he said, “and the first Obama presidency.”
Issues such as child support and custody and the division of marital assets were a breeze, said Power, an administrator of a national retirement plan based in Clearwater. The fight that lasted 58 months was all over alimony. His ex had asked for $20,000 a month, he said.
The divorce cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, he said, and when the dissolution dust settled, his former wife was given a fraction of what she originally requested, Power said.
“I’m glad it’s over,” he said. “I was in the middle of a nightmare.”
The Florida Senate is set to vote on the alimony reform bill this week. A companion bill also is making its way through the House, and it appears both will pass and become law this year.
The biggest change: an end to lifetime alimony, replaced with support that has a foreseeable end.
The legislation also would make it harder to get alimony in marriages that last fewer than 10 years. And the bill generally would prevent courts from ordering alimony for longer than half the length of a marriage.
Power is closely watching the bills make their way through the session in Tallahassee.
“This is changing thousands of lives in this state,” he said. “This is big.”
Power is engaged to a woman who owns a consulting firm in Clearwater.
“We dare not get married since doing so would open the door for my ex-wife’s attorney to apply for an alimony modification,” he said, “which effectively means that my new wife would be paying my ex-wife’s alimony.”
On the other side of the argument is Cathy Jones of Lakeland. She says alimony reform will devastate the lives of thousands of women in Florida.
“If this passes,” she said, “a large number of middle-age women will be destitute.”
She declined to discuss her situation, other than to say she was divorced after a long marriage and is getting alimony that she expects will be reduced or end if the bills pass.
She said that in most divorces in which alimony is ordered, the husband was wealthy and the wife did not work outside the home.
“Not only has she not contributed to her Social Security,” Jones said, “she has no retirement plan” and no work history to draw on for a new career.
Such women have gone 20 or 30 years without working, she said, and starting a career at their age is virtually impossible.
“Many have bettered themselves,” she said. Jones returned to school and is about to receive a master’s degree, she said. “But for legislators to expect 50-year-old and 60-year-old women to start careers in this economy is … just not compassionate.”
She said she has written letters to four state legislators who are backing the reform bills and has yet to hear from any of them.
“It’s extraordinarily unrealistic to think I can go out and get a $65,000-a-year job,” she said, “having not been in the workforce for 20 years.”
Alimony payers, she said, “forget that for 20 years, they had a person doing everything from ironing their boxers to getting them invited to parties that helped their businesses.”
“Alimony is compensation and acknowledgement of the fact that this was a partnership where one person was paid and one person was not.”
Alan Frisher is a Brevard County financial planner and director of Florida Alimony Reform. He calls the existing alimony laws “anti-family and anti-marriage.”
He and his group have been pushing for alimony reform for years, particularly lifetime alimony.
“Even criminals who murder somebody can be out in a number of years,” he said.
He said he knows people who have been ordered to pay alimony out of their Social Security retirement benefits and others who have been unable to financially help their children because of crushing alimony payments.
“We have women paying 65 percent of their income to ex-husbands who decide not to work,” he said. “The horror stories just go on and on.”
Frisher said the reforms benefit everyone, not just the person paying alimony.
“Permanent alimony makes you tied to the person you want to divorce, for one thing,” he said. “Secondly, it makes you not want to work harder. If you work harder and make more money, your ex-spouse will take you back to court and get a higher award in alimony. It makes no sense.”
Mark Sessums, a lawyer from Lakeland, opposes the new legislation, saying it is backed by moneyed divorced people who don’t want to part with their cash. They have organized in a polished lobbying network to overturn a law that has been working for decades, he said.
“The issue is that this reform ties the hands of circuit judges,” he said. “It eliminates what has worked for a long time; permanent alimony will be eliminated altogether.”
He said it will be mostly women who have been in long marriages who will be hurt by this legislation.
“If you are a spouse in a traditional marriage and you either stop working or you stop your career and put yourself on the back burner and you get divorced, you will not be getting permanent alimony.
“You will be allowed only up to 20 percent of your ex-spouse’s income,” he said. “If your lifestyle requires $3,000 a month to live and 20 percent of someone’s income now is only $1,000, you can’t live the same way. You instantly have a burden. You need to change your life.”
A wealthy spouse who is trying to get out of paying alimony to an ex who needs the money to survive, “Well, I just don’t see that type of person as sympathetic,” Sessums said.
If the bill passes, Sessums said family law lawyers will be busy taking cases of people seeking modification of alimony payments.
“We represent a lot of people who pay alimony, and they will be all over this to reduce their support payments,” he said. “My phones are already ringing off the hook about this.”
Linda Murray is a divorcee in Clearwater who was married for 20 years to a dermatologist before divorcing and receiving a lifetime alimony order. She said the bills under consideration could result in her alimony being reduced or terminated, and that’s unfair.
“Alimony was part of the settlement of my divorce,” she said. “I could have taken more cash or property. But I settled on lifetime alimony. When it says for life, it’s supposed to be for life.”
Her concern extends to women who are divorced after 20 or 30 years of marriage.
“They are in their 50s,” Murray said. “What are they going to do, go back to work? Go back to school?”