(Update: Gov. Rick Scott listened to many in the public and vetoed the alimony bill on May 1. This column was posted on April 26.)
BY ANDREA GUNDERSEN
Florida lawmakers have recently sent a bill to Governor Rick Scott that will dramatically alter the state’s alimony law eliminating permanent alimony and unfairly rebalancing the alimony scales relieving higher income earning spouses from long-term obligations to a former spouse. This rebalancing will severely impact predominantly women, who are lower earning spouses and stay-at-home parents. Both women and men should demand the Governor veto this bill.
The bill will end permanent alimony for the future, with the ability to reach back and end it retroactively as well. In addition to changing the alimony laws, the bill also adds language to the existing statute making 50/50 equal timesharing of children a mandatory presumption that it is in the “best interest of the child”. What seems most peculiar is the record speed in which the bill sailed through the Legislature, without having gathered sufficient information on individual impact on women, children and families that was not thoroughly considered in committee. There was little notice or opportunity for citizens to testify as to the impact this legislation could have on families and children.
Another striking element of the proposed bill is the fact that unlike other provisions within the family law statute governing modification of support, that would otherwise require a “substantial change in circumstance” to modify, this proposed legislation makes the amendments to law, in and of itself, the substantial change in circumstance necessary to file for a modification. What message does this send to those people who entered into marital settlement agreements over the years during their emotional and stressful dissolution proceedings and settled on terms within the “contract” that now can be modified for no other reason but for the change in the law? What kind of chilling effect will this have on the ability to enter into contractual agreements in the future that could be reversed, based solely on some future change in the law?
This bill gives no notice or protection of any kind to those individuals who had relied on the existing law, at the time of their dissolution, and have been dependent on, and built their life around, the support that had been mutually agreed upon at the time of the dissolution. What is to become of these individuals, which statistically are predominantly women, who have relied on this additional support for years and now, without any warning or notice to them, a change in the law, may send them back to court to strip them of the support that they are in need of and that had been bargained for years before? Will this proposed change in the law ultimately create a new class of individuals in need of or eligible for the variety of public assistance programs for families and children? And how will an already congested family court system deal with the increased caseload, created by the volume of modifications filed based on the change in the law?
One more disturbing element of the proposed bill is the mandatory presumptive equal timesharing that the proposed amendment establishes as the “best interest of the child”. Without the benefit of a thorough study of the issue, or consideration of the physical or psychological developmental stages of the children, the proposed bill mandates 50/50 timesharing as in the “best interest of the children”, removing the discretion of the court to determine the “best interest” based on evidence.
Does the Legislature actually believe that a six-month-old child is best off spending 50% of the time away from a mother who is breast feeding? The prevailing studies and literature developed by mental health professionals, which the Florida Family Law Section has relied upon for years, has determined that it is NOT in the best interests of children to have a “presumption” of any particular timesharing schedule as is evident in the present law and in its application. Children and families cannot be put into a “cookie cutter” mold that mandates 50/50 timesharing as “in the best interest” without allowing the courts, on a case-by-case basis, to consider actual factors in determining what is in the best interest of the children.
What has been left unspoken in the discussion about the proposed 50/50 timesharing is the impact this mandate will have on child support. The current child support law, as amended in 2010, dramatically linked each overnight of timesharing with a dollar value in child support. To mandate 50/50 timesharing would dramatically reduce and in some cases eradicate any child support being paid. And once the child support is calculated, based on the 50/50 timesharing, what happens when one parent or the other, does not adhere to the 50/50 timesharing mandated by the proposed bill, yet is paying the child support as if they are? Is this amendment to the law about timesharing or about child support, only time will tell. It will sure require thousands of hours of precious court time to continually untangle the mess this bill will create.
In the end, SB718 poses more questions than answers as to its long-term impact.
It doesn’t appear that there is enough information gathered for Governor Rick Scott to make an informed decision as to the impact this proposed legislation would have on women, men, families, children, social program funding and the courts and for that reason, it does not appear ripe for enacting and Gov. Scott should veto the bill.
(Andrea R. Gundersen is an AV rated Marital & Family Law attorney and a Certified Family Mediator with more than 20 years experience. She has an office in Fort Lauderdale.)