“This is a death sentence for me;” Ron DeSantis signs an overhaul of Florida’s alimony laws

divorce paperwork
Divorce and alimony documents. By Rawf8 via iStock for WMNF News.

By Dara Kam ©2023 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed a measure that will overhaul the state’s alimony laws, after three vetoes of similar bills and a decade of emotional clashes over the issue.

The measure (SB 1416) includes doing away with what is known as permanent alimony. DeSantis’ approval came a year after he nixed a similar bill that sought to eliminate permanent alimony and set up a formula for alimony amounts based on the length of marriage.

The approval drew an outcry from members of the “First Wives Advocacy Group,” a coalition of mostly older women who receive permanent alimony and who assert that their lives will be upended without the payments.

“On behalf of the thousands of women who our group represents, we are very disappointed in the governor’s decision to sign the alimony-reform bill. We believe by signing it, he has put older women in a situation which will cause financial devastation. The so-called party of ‘family values’ has just contributed to erosion of the institution of marriage in Florida,” Jan Killilea, a 63-year-old Boca Raton woman who founded the group a decade ago, told The News Service of Florida in a text message Friday.

The years-long effort to do away with permanent alimony has been a highly contentious issue. It elicited tearful testimony from members of the First Wives group. But it also spurred impassioned pleas from ex-spouses who said they had been forced to work long past the age they wanted to retire because they were on the hook for alimony payments.

Michael Buhler, chairman of Florida Family Fairness, a group that has pushed for doing away with permanent alimony, praised the approval of the bill.

“Florida Family Fairness is pleased that the Florida Legislature and Gov. DeSantis have passed a bill that ends permanent alimony and codifies in statute the right to retire for existing alimony payers,” Buhler said in a statement “Anything that adds clarity and ends permanent alimony is a win for Florida families.”

Along with DeSantis’ veto of the 2022 version, former Gov. Rick Scott twice vetoed similar bills. The issue spurred a near-fracas outside Scott’s office in 2016.

This year, however, the proposal received relatively little public pushback and got the blessing of Florida Family Fairness and The Florida Bar’s Family Law Section, which fiercely clashed over the issue in the past.

Along with eliminating permanent alimony, the measure will set up a process for ex-spouses who make alimony payments to seek modifications to alimony agreements when they want to retire.

It will allow judges to reduce or terminate alimony, support or maintenance payments after considering a number of factors, such as “the age and health” of the person who makes payments; the customary retirement age of that person’s occupation; “the economic impact” a reduction in alimony would have on the recipient of the payments; and the “motivation for retirement and likelihood of returning to work” for the person making the payments.

Supporters said it will codify into law a court decision in a 1992 divorce case that judges use as a guidepost when making decisions about retirement.

But, as with previous versions, opponents remained concerned that the bill would apply to existing permanent alimony agreements, which many ex-spouses accept in exchange for giving up other assets as part of divorce settlements.

“He (DeSantis) has just impoverished all the older women of Florida, and I know at least 3,000 women across the state of Florida are switching to Democrat and we will campaign against him, all the way, forever,” Camille Fiveash, a Milton Republican who receives permanent alimony, said in a phone interview Friday.

In vetoing the 2022 version, DeSantis pointed to concerns about the bill allowing ex-spouses to have existing alimony agreements amended. In a June 24, 2022, veto letter, he wrote that if the bill “were to become law and be given retroactive effect as the Legislature intends, it would unconstitutionally impair vested rights under certain pre-existing marital settlement agreements.”

But Senate bill sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, tried to assure lawmakers that the 2023 version would not unconstitutionally affect existing alimony settlements. This year’s proposal “went to what is currently case law,” Gruters told a Senate committee in April, pointing to the court ruling.

“So what you can do right now, under case law, we now codify all those laws and make that the rule of law. So we basically just solidify that. So from a retroactivity standpoint, no, because if anything could be modifiable before, it’s still modifiable. If it’s a non-modifiable agreement, you still can’t modify that agreement,” he said.

The bill, which will take effect Saturday, also will set a five-year limit on what is known as rehabilitative alimony. Under the plan, people married for less than three years will not be eligible for alimony payments, and those who have been married 20 years or longer will be eligible to receive payments for up to 75 percent of the term of the marriage.

The new law will also allow alimony payers to seek modifications if “a supportive relationship exists or has existed” involving their ex-spouses in the previous year. Critics argued the provision is vague and could apply to temporary roommates who help alimony recipients cover living expenses for short periods of time.

Fiveash, a 63-year-old with serious medical conditions, said she can’t afford another legal fight over alimony.

“My fears are that they can take you back to court, and I don’t have the money for an attorney. I literally live off a little bit I get for alimony. I work part-time, because I have all kinds of ailments. And now I’m going to be left without anything, absolutely anything,” she said.

Health insurance, Fiveash added, will “probably be the first thing to go” if her payments are reduced or eliminated.

“This is a death sentence for me,” she said.

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