TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – After hearing sharply divided opinions from people who have been through divorces, a House panel Wednesday began moving forward with a controversial bill that would place new limits on alimony.
The proposal (HB 231) would take steps such as reining in the amount of time that alimony payments could be required, trying to short-circuit alimony in marriages of 10 years or less and shielding retirees form alimony requirements.
Sponsor Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, said the state's current alimony laws are "archaic," and he wants to provide guidelines to better resolve such issues in divorce cases.
"I want to make this so people can get divorced and move on with their life,'' said Workman, who is divorced but indicated he has not paid or received alimony.
But Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, described the proposal as one-sided and "anti-woman."
"I think this bill will do more harm than good, '' she said.
The House Civil Justice Subcommittee voted 10-2 to approve the bill, with Stafford and Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, the only dissenters. Workman also proposed a similar measure last year, though he said it "died a slow, painful death in the Senate."
HB 231 is slated to go next to the House Judiciary Committee. A similar bill (SB 718) was filed last week in the Senate. Alimony payments can be required of men or women involved in divorces.
Wednesday's vote came after testimony from people who offered far-different views about whether the alimony system needs to be overhauled.
As an example, Deerfield Beach resident Guido Albarran told the subcommittee that 50 percent of his salary goes to his ex-wife. He said it is unfair to require alimony payments decades after divorces occur, at one point likening such situations to "financial enslavement."
On the other side were people such as Longwood resident Ann Dwyer, who said she was married for more than 20 years and did not work outside the home as her then-husband built his career. She received permanent alimony and, while she was able to later find a job, said the payments from her ex-husband have allowed her to stay in her home and meet other expenses.
The bill would eliminate the concept of permanent alimony, though Workman said judges would have the discretion to extend what is called "durational" alimony for long periods of time if necessary.
The bill says such durational alimony would be limited to 50 percent of the length of the marriage, unless one of the divorcing spouses could show by "clear and convincing evidence that exceptional circumstances justify the need for a longer award of alimony."
Another heavily discussed part of the bill could help people seek to end or reduce alimony payments as they reach retirement age. Also, the bill would allow what is known as "retroactivity,'' which could lead to reopening already-existing alimony arrangements to reduce payments.
Local lawyer Stefani Nolan works with Kenny Leigh and Associates, which focuses on men's rights in family law. According to Nolan, the bill takes alimony reform to the next step.
"Even with moderate marriage or long term, it tells the judge what kind of alimony he or she is going to set, that's never been defined before," said Nolan.
Opponents include the Family Law Section of The Florida Bar. David Manz, a past chairman of the Family Law Section, told the subcommittee that the retroactivity, for instance, adds harshness and unfairness to the bill and could lead to a "flood" of litigation.
"It is very vindictive in my opinion," said Florida Bar attorney Thomas Duggar. "It is very hurtful for Florida families, especially for women who stay at home and raise kids or for men who stay home and raise kids."
Workman said he is willing to work with critics, but he said the alimony system needs changes.
"Alimony is broken, and maybe I don't have the perfect fix,'' Workman said. "But there is a fix out there."