Published April 24, 2013
Former spouses weighed down with hefty alimony payments could soon be catching a break.
A controversial new bill awaiting the governor’s signature in Florida would allow judges to retroactively scale back and cap alimony payments, as well as end life-long agreements for divorcees.
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Ritch Workman, (R-FL), would make Florida among the first states in the U.S., behind Massachusetts, to overhaul the alimony system. The state legislature passed the bill last week and it awaits signature from Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
The sunshine state’s current alimony law requires a spouse to pay the other until death, but this effort would bar payments from lasting for more than half the length of a marriage. It also proposes benefit caps based on the recipient’s salary, and would allow judges to change existing alimony agreements. The bill also requires judges to give equal child custody to spouses in most cases, FOXNews.com reports.
Alimony laws have gotten increasingly tighter in recent years, according to Randall Kessler, partner at Kessler and Solomiany Family Law in Atlanta, and this bill is just the beginning. He says the days of former spouses being able to live off alimony payments are numbered.
“Society wise, alimony is on the decline, and it has been for years,” Kessler says. “It’s become harder and harder to ask for someone to support you for life.”
With that said, he doesn’t expect Gov. Scott to sign the bill because the clause that judges being able to retroactively alter agreements is “short-sighted.”
“Someone may have given up the rights to a house, for example, to get long-term alimony payments,” Kessler says. “I like alimony being open-ended, and I want to argue the facts as a lawyer. No law applies to every situation.”
Divorces are always case-by-case, he says, so having a one-size-fits-all bill of this sort, and allowing settled cases to be reconsidered by courts is backwards.
“It’s like someone getting life in prison, and then trying to go back and change the law,” he says. “This reopens the wound.”
Splitting in Massachusetts
While other states have mulled similar legislation, only Massachusetts has been able to overhaul its alimony system recently. The commonwealth’s law has been in effect for over a year, and tweaked how much can be paid out to former spouses.
While permanent alimony can still be sought, payments can be modified on change of circumstance, according to Suffolk University Law School professor Charles Kindregan, Jr. Alimony in the form of restitution can also be requested in certain cases: for example, if one person leaves a short-term marriage of five years or less and grossed an earning advantage over the other.
Judges in Massachusetts can also use their discretion to honor a “bridge of alimony” if in a short-term marriage one person needs help to relocate or get started in a new business. Finally there is “rehabilitative alimony” which is not long-term and can only be claimed up until age 65, Kindregan says, when recipients become eligible for Social Security. Child support payments are viewed separately by judges, he says.
“Everyone seemed to realize that alimony shouldn’t be a permanent lien on one person’s salary because they happened to have been married years before,” he says. “That was a generally accepted principle.”
The Retirement Push
Proponents of the Florida bill, including men’s rights groups, say it is about allowing those paying alimony to retire comfortably without being saddled with alimony payments. It would also prevent second spouses from supporting ex-wives and husbands, as about 80% of divorcees go on to remarry, according to Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings center on Children and Families and Budgeting
In Florida, one of the choice destinations for retirees, the stakes are even higher, he says.
“This makes it much more difficult for a man [to retire] if he is the one supporting the spouse,” he says. “It increases the pressure on a man, and the majority is remarried. This puts pressure on [lawmakers] to [pass the bill] at this time.”
Implications of the Law
The bill will impact the labor market if it becomes law, according to Haskins because it will increase the labor rate.
“The labor participation rates for women [in America] are high and are already growing,” Haskins says. “There is no doubt it would increase labor participation.”
Keeping alimony laws as they stand is almost “anti-woman,” Haskins argues, because they are inconsistent with American values today.
“It’s inconsistent with the idea that women are independent and responsible adults just like men are,” he says. “Now women in society prepare for careers—their work rates have skyrocketed at the same time that men’s have declined.”
This bill could have broader implications as well, Kessler says, including couples avoiding divorce altogether.
“This might scare people into staying married,” he says.
While the law is being tweaked and updated in different ways, Kindregan says he thinks it’s a long way off from becoming history.
“It won’t happen in my lifetime,” he says. “Every state does its own thing—some states are considering changes, but others can be very conservative in this regard.”