Alimony overhaul awaits Gov. Scott's signature

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - With lawmakers squaring off about whether the bill was "anti-woman," the Florida House gave final approval Thursday to a plan to overhaul the state's alimony laws.

The bill (SB 718), which was approved by the Senate early this month and is headed to Gov. Rick Scott, would eliminate the concept of permanent alimony and also would make myriad other changes that could affect divorced couples. As an example, it would make it harder to receive alimony when marriages last 11 years or less.

Supporters said the bill would add more fairness to alimony laws and that it could help end what sponsor Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, described as "gamesmanship" in divorces.

"We're just saying that every case shouldn't be permanent alimony,'' said Rep. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City. "You shouldn't be paying a lifetime of servitude on a short-term marriage."

But opponents said the bill will hurt women who have given up careers to stay home and raise families and then wind up getting divorced.

"We're setting up the premise that women will no longer be treated equally in a divorce settlement," said Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens.

Those arguments, however, were disputed by the bill's supporters --- women and men. Workman said changes in the bill would give families more certainty in what now can be nasty divorce disputes.

"This bill isn't anti-woman,'' Workman said. "It's pro-family."

House members voted 85-31 to approve the bill, which passed the Senate by a 29-11 vote. During the session, lawmakers heard horror stories from people on both sides of the issue --- including people who argued they had been saddled with making hefty, unjustified alimony payments, along with people who were struggling to make ends meet after divorces.

The 34-page bill, in part, would create new legal standards based on the lengths of marriages. For example, when marriages end in 11 years or less, there would be what is known as a "rebuttable presumption" against awarding alimony. In contrast, a marriage that ends after 20 years would create a presumption that alimony would be awarded.

Also, the bill would set limits on the percentages of monthly income that could be awarded in alimony based on the lengths of marriages.

Opponents of the bill focused heavily on the potential effects on women who have been out of the workforce for long periods of time.

"I shudder to think what this bill will do,'' said Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana.

But supporters said the bill would help treat people fairly and that women also sometimes pay alimony.

"Alimony doesn't always mean that it's the woman receiving the alimony," Porter said. "It can work both ways."

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