Florida legislature giving serious consideration to alimony reform bills

A key bill has been approved by an important House committee.

Some vocal alimony critics across the country believe that some of traditional alimony's basic premises are outdated and unfair in modern times. This movement has influenced changes in alimony laws in some states, most notably Massachusetts and New Jersey, but there has also been significant debate in Florida. Currently, as of February 4, 2016, three similar alimony reform bills are under consideration in the state legislature.

On February 4, 2016, after a hearing, the Florida House Judiciary Committee approved one of the bills - H.B. 455 - in a 14-to-3 vote, reports The Gainesville Sun. This bill, sponsored by Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, would make several major changes to the current state alimony system. Most notably, the measure would take away the discretion of judges to order lifetime awards with no end dates.

Instead, the bill would require a judge to apply formulas based on the length of the marriage and each party's income to determine a presumptive range within which amount and duration should be set after the judge considers a preset list of factors. However, the judge could deviate from the presumptive ranges only if, after considering the factors, he or she makes specific written findings about why an award within the presumptive range would be "inappropriate or inequitable."

Requiring judges to apply guidelines is one reform idea that has grown out of concern that judges have so much discretion that awards to similar couples vary widely across the same state, including Florida, creating unpredictability.

In response, advocates of more traditional alimony systems that allow judges wide discretion to fashion awards believe that without such discretion, unique and serious needs of some ex-spouses will not be met. This concern is deep when a spouse, usually female, has voluntarily separated from the workforce to contribute homemaking and parenting to the family while allowing the breadwinner spouse to further his or her career. Understandably, such a person would likely have trouble reentering the workforce in advanced age with years without work experience.

Burton's bill is supported by the Family Law Section of The Florida Bar and reform advocates. All sides will watch with keen interest whether the bill goes to the full House for debate or even further in the legislative process, as well as whether either of the other two bills progresses.

From her office in Longwood, Florida, family lawyer Michelle Barry of Michelle A. Barry, P.A., represents divorce clients in the Orlando metropolitan area and across Central Florida in matters of alimony and other related issues.