Florida alimony reform

The legislative debate over alimony reform continues this session.

The vigorous alimony debate in Florida has made national headlines, but in contrast to a few other states that have made major changes to their alimony laws recently, the legislative process in Florida has not yet produced such reform. As of this writing in January 2016, three major alimony reform bills are under consideration.

With a high proportion of the population approaching or in retirement and the elevated likelihood of second or subsequent marriages in an older populous, the ongoing alimony reform debate in Florida is no surprise. In these phases of life, the payment or receipt of alimony can be particularly difficult to the payor and crucially important to the recipient.

The national debate challenges whether the main historical reason for alimony - to support stay-at-home wives who were economically dependent on breadwinner husbands - is still relevant since women have made so much professional and economic progress and gender roles within marriages may not be traditional.

Some of the main issues being debated include:

  • Is it still fair to require one ex-spouse to pay lifetime alimony, especially after the payor's retirement?
  • Is it fair to consider the income of a payor's subsequent spouse as available to pay alimony to a previous spouse?
  • Do judges have too much discretion? Would guidelines to determine amount and duration of alimony make awards more predictable and uniform?
  • Should an ex-spouse be expected to become self-supporting whenever possible?

In response, some feel that alimony reform should be slow and careful, and that hurried, extreme changes could leave some ex-spouses in financial trouble, especially women in traditional marriages. Some argue that judges need discretion to fashion appropriate alimony awards as they see fit in individual cases, without which some ex-spouses will fall through the cracks financially.

Current Florida alimony

Florida statute provides that one purpose of state divorce law is to "mitigate the potential harm to the spouses and their children" from the divorce process. Alimony obviously is one way to alleviate economic harm to a spouse with greater financial need, which could be for any of a number of reasons.

Often divorcing couples can negotiate a settlement agreement that includes the terms of alimony. But if no agreement is reached, the judge in the divorce must decide the issue according to Florida law.

Interestingly, the level of discretion Florida judges have in alimony matters is more than that of some other states and less than that of others. First, the judge must decide whether one party has the need for support and the other the means to provide it. If yes, the judge is directed to consider all relevant factors, including those in a specific list, to determine the nature of the award, including amount and duration.

In contrast to some other states that forbid it, Florida judges may consider adultery when setting alimony amounts.

The judge may currently choose among four alimony types - bridge-the-gap, rehabilitative, duration or permanent - alone or in combination. While the law contains some direction to the judge, it does not contain required formulas or guidelines.

Proposed reforms

The current legislative session ends on March 11, so legislative work must be done quickly if any of the three pending alimony reform bills are to pass. All three are long and detailed with some differences among them, but generally permanent alimony would end and guidelines would determine presumptive award sizes and durations.

With offices in Palm Beach Gardens, Wellington and West Palm Beach, Florida, the experienced family lawyers of Matthew Lane & Associates, P.A., advise and advocate for clients facing alimony questions and other issues in divorce.

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