On May 1, 2013, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed Senate Bill 718, legislation that would have ended permanent periodic alimony and created many problems for enforcement of Equitable Distribution.
That veto caused an avalanche of criticism in the press from supporters of Florida’s Alimony Reform, better known as “FAR.” In 2012, a much weaker version of the bill couldn’t pass because there weren’t enough Democrats supporting it in the Senate. How then did an election that put more Democrats into office change the landscape that much, that a much more draconian bill sailed through the Senate? The answer may lie in the way “leveling the playing field” was used by FAR to market the bill in 2013 while the Family Law Legislative Committee slept, confident nothing could pass.
Marketing reform as “leveling the playing field” is little more than a disingenuous ploy. If permanent alimony ends, an otherwise level playing field no longer exist. This ploy is also clever because it created cover for many Democrats elected to protect women and children but who saw an opportunity to vote for their own interests.
Supporters of FAR include outraged women paying men alimony, men paying alimony who think they no longer should, and women who were unsuccessful securing alimony in court.
Alimony Reform was needed before 2006. Appellate rulings after 2006 began reining in trial courts that awarded other than basic-need alimony in marriages less than 22 years. This preserves the higher lifestyle amount be paid in much longer marriages. In 2010 our legislature added durational alimony to the various types of alimony a judge could award. It is defined as alimony that runs for a specified length of time and then ends. This is in addition to bridge-to-gap alimony, seldom payable for more than two or three years. It ostensibly is used to allow a spouse to transition from married to single life.
Another option is rehabilitative alimony. It seldom lasts longer than five years. Before a court can award it there must be a rehabilitative plan. This form of alimony is used so that a spouse could acquire new skills for future employment after the marriage ends.
In 2011 our Legislature changed the landscape for permanent periodic alimony by requiring a court to show why no other form of alimony (or combination thereof) would work just as well. This statutory requirement made permanent periodic alimony the alimony of last resort; but it did not end it.
The main difference between what the reformers want and what Florida already offers are three things: (1) Their version of permanent alimony ends for everyone; (2) Lifestyle alimony is replaced by basic need alimony for everyone; and (3) The law is applied retroactively. This last provision allows many people who entered contracts and exchanged assets for spousal support to end their obligations without returning the assets they enjoyed.
Everyone should understand that when that marriage lasted 25 years and more the spouse who stayed home is simply not going to be able to start a career and fully recover for the 25 years lost. It is needed when one spouse uses his or her own money to finance the education of the other spouse and forgoes a career. It is needed when one spouse depletes all marital assets for an illicit affair, uses illegal drugs, engages in gambling or when that spouse spends all the money to spite the other spouse planning to divorce. In each of these situations lifestyle alimony is justifiable.
Despite FAR’s assertion that all it seeks is a level playing field, alimony in all its various forms levels the playing field. Support includes requiring the spouse with greater means to pay the attorney’s fees of the other spouse. FAR seeks to eliminate that level playing field, leaving the spouse who controls the money the victor.
Jerry Reiss is a forensic expert and practicing actuary.