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Florida Legislature consider changes to state alimony laws

On January 12th, 2016, the Florida State Legislature heard a reading of HB 455, seeking changes to the way judges calculate the terms and conditions of alimony in a divorce proceeding. The bill is sponsored by Republican State Representative Colleen Burton of Lakeland. The Florida Legislature has unsuccessfully tried twice in the past three years to modify Florida's existing laws regarding spousal maintenance. Perhaps this time will be different.

This blog post will discuss the language of the bill and what it will mean if it eventually passes into law.

What Changes Are Being Sought?

If the law eventually passes, one provision will be to reduce Florida Family Court judges' personal discretion regarding alimony awards. HB 455 requires judges to apply a formula when determining the dollar amount of a monthly alimony award, as well as the duration of the alimony payment over time. To be fair, Representative Burton points out that the bill does not set out hard-and-fast rule judges must follow, but gives guidance. A similar measure was included in a bill passed into law in 2013, but subsequently vetoed by Governor Rick Scott because it allowed for retroactive modifications to existing permanent periodic alimony awards. The language of Burton's 2016 bill includes similar provisions for modifications.

Who Supports Passage?

Advocates for passing the bill include mens' rights groups and alimony reform groups who claim that "permanent" alimony leaves one spouse holding the financial bag for both spouses, in many cases for years. Under current conditions of alimony, once the award is set, the payor must petition for change through the courts, proving that financial circumstances for both parties have permanently changed sufficiently to warrant a reduction or end of support. The new calculator model could mean a change could be warranted anytime the financial formula indicate that the alimony award is no longer merited.

Who Opposes?

Opponents of the bill include advocates for spouses who were awarded permanent alimony based on their role in the family over the course of their long-term marriage. Currently, there is a presumption favoring awarding permanent alimony in cases of marriages of 17 or more years. Retired Circuit Judge Robert M. Evans of Orlando, a former family court judge who presided over thousands of divorces, argues that the new law would make it too easy to modify or eliminate an alimony award based on short-term circumstances in which the playing field for both spouses only appears to be temporarily level.

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