Lobbyists line up on contentious alimony issue

Alimony reform debate likely to resurface in 2020 legislative session

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The messy issue of overhauling Florida’s alimony laws could be making a political comeback, based on a lineup of high-powered lobbyists engaged to wage the 2020 legislative session’s iteration of divorce wars.

“Florida Family Fairness,” a group behind an effort to purge the state of “permanent” alimony, has hired two of the state’s most-influential lobbying firms -- The Southern Group and Ballard Partners -- to push alimony changes during the session that kicks off in January.

On the other side, The Florida Bar’s Family Law Section has enlisted the firm Smith, Bryan & Myers to defend -- or tweak -- the status quo. They’ve got the help of prominent lobbyist Michael Corcoran, who registered this week to represent the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

The lobbying recruitment comes before any bills have been filed, but it could telegraph the end of a brief legislative respite on the issue, which three years ago resulted in a near-fracas outside then-Gov. Rick Scott’s office over a proposed alimony revamp.

Scott, who is now a U.S. senator, twice vetoed controversial alimony proposals. In his second veto in 2016, Scott blamed an even more-contentious child custody component included in that year’s version.

The proposal would have created a formula, based on the length of marriage and the combined incomes of both spouses, for judges to use when setting alimony payments. After years of disagreement on the issue, alimony-overhaul advocates and The Florida Bar's Family Law Section supported the proposal, which would have also eliminated permanent alimony while giving judges some discretion to veer from the formula.

But the plan became one of the most hotly contested issues of the 2016 session when it was amended to include a child-sharing component that would have required judges to begin with a "premise" that children should split their time equally between parents.

In 2013, Scott vetoed a different version, objecting that alimony changes could have been applied retroactively.

But with Gov. Ron DeSantis replacing Scott in January and a new political committee pushing for changes, critics of current alimony laws are once again pushing to overhaul a system they claim is unfair and outmoded.

Although lawmakers in the House and Senate haven’t filed alimony legislation, the House Civil Justice Subcommittee heard from both sides of the issue during a Thursday workshop.

Under current Florida law, four types of alimony are available: “bridge-the-gap,” which provides for up to two years of payments for transition from being married to being single; “rehabilitative,” which provides support for an ex-spouse who is receiving training or schooling; “durational,” which allows ex-spouses to receive assistance for a set period of time; and “permanent,” which terminates when one spouse dies or when the party receiving payments is remarried.

Alan Elkins, a Boca Raton family law attorney who is secretary of the Florida Family Fairness political committee, said he has been “in the trenches representing an equal number of men and women” for four decades.

“We’re not anti-alimony,” Elkins, a permanent alimony payer who said he’s “been paying for 19 years on a 21-year marriage.”

Advocates of changes have a “philosophical” problem with permanent alimony, Elkins said, because “it creates a culture of dependence” and acts as a disincentive for ex-spouses to seek employment.

Most alimony agreements can be modified, but seeking changes through the courts can be expensive, Elkins said.

Uncertainty about how judges will decide on alimony is also problematic, he said. For example, different judges, even within the same circuit, can issue vastly different orders.

“That’s unreasonable. There’s no consistency to it. It’s not fair,” he said.

Elkins wants lawmakers to use a model based on what some other states have done. That would involve a formula based on the differential between spouses’ incomes and the duration of the marriage.

But Andrea Reid, a family law attorney also from Boca Raton, said revisions to Florida’s alimony laws in 2010 and 2011 were so significant and so far-reaching that another overhaul isn’t necessary.

Florida judges have “very specific guidelines,” considering a spouse’s needs and a spouse’s ability to pay, to use when calculating alimony, Reid said.

“What they are not is a mathematical equation,” she added, saying that each case should be looked at individually.

“We think the statute’s working,” said Reid, a member of the Family Law Section’s legislative committee.

Permanent alimony, or “the life sentence,” is “absolutely, positively modifiable and it is done all the time,” she said.

But, because the term “permanent alimony” has a bad rap, Reid said the Family Law Section supports a change in the name.

House Civil Justice Chairman Bob Rommel, R-Naples, asked the panelists why the last attempt at alimony changes was vetoed in 2016.

“Well, sir, I would prefer not to opine on why that bill was killed,” Elkins said.

Philip Wartenberg, a family law attorney, said the Family Law Section “reluctantly” agreed to the revamped alimony guidelines in the 2016 measure but opposed the child custody component in the measure.

“But really, the Section has never been full on board with the idea of a formulaic approach to alimony,” he said.

Rommel said he understood “that this is an extremely sensitive issue for all sides.”

“If there is any change, there’s always a little bit of heartburn on both sides. Just like the bill that was passed that got vetoed, it was probably fair enough that we had bipartisan agreement there, and everybody was a little bit uncomfortable,” he said.