Paying It Forward and Forward and Forward
Is permanent alimony unfair or a necessary safeguard for stay-at-home and disabled spouses?
When brides and grooms recite their marriage vows “till death do us part,” most don’t know that phrase could also apply to lifelong alimony if they eventually divorce.
“I equate it to slavery, and the state of Florida is the one making me do it. I have to work to give money to her, or I go to jail,” said Kevin Hoot of Jacksonville, who has been paying permanent alimony for 13 years to his former wife, to whom he was married for 18 years.
“I’m bitter about it. I don’t like the idea,” said Hoot.
A grassroots group, Florida Alimony Reform, is taking another run at passing a bill in the Legislature which would end permanent alimony, along with making other changes to the laws, such as not including a second wife’s earnings to increase alimony payments.
The organization, known as FAR, is run by Alan Ross Frisher, a certified divorce financial analyst in Melbourne, Fla., who paid alimony for nine years after he and his wife divorced after 13 years of marriage. He no longer pays alimony. On Frisher’s fourth trip to court, the judge denied a motion from his wife’s attorney to make him pay his wife’s $18,000 legal bill. As a result, the couple went back into mediation and she agreed to free him from permanent alimony.
Every day Frisher sees the inequities of the issue. He said some members of his group are paying $10,000 to $50,000 a month in alimony.
On the other side of the issue is the Family Law Section of The Florida Bar, an organization of about 4,100 attorneys. In last year’s legislative session, it actively fought against FAR’s proposed reforms, calling them unnecessary in light of changes made to the law in 2010 and 2011.
The changes included revising the factors that are considered in awarding alimony, setting up classifications based on the length of a marriage and setting up the four types of alimony: bridge-the-gap, rehabilitative, durational and permanent, also known as long-term.
Bridge-the-gap alimony is designed to help assist a spouse in transition from being married to being single, it’s applicable for up to two years. Rehabilitative alimony helps a person establish the capacity for self-support through redevelopment of previous skills or credentials, or education, training and work experience. Durational alimony provides a person with economic assistance for a set period of time if there is no ongoing need for support on a permanent basis.
Permanent alimony is designed primarily for a person whose marriage lasted 17 years or more and who lacks “the financial ability to meet his or her needs and necessities of life following a dissolution of marriage,” including stay-at-home moms and the disabled.
“In awarding permanent alimony, the court shall include a finding that no other form of alimony is fair and reasonable under the circumstances of the parties,” the law reads.
FAR wants to eliminate permanent alimony and make durational alimony the default for those receiving payments from their ex-spouses.
Ann Dwyer, who receives permanent alimony, is opposed to that idea. Dwyer was 45 when she and her husband of 21 years divorced. She had been a wife and a homemaker for much of her life and had no marketable skills when the divorce occurred. She received the family home in Orlando and permanent alimony.
“I don’t know where I would be without it,” said Dwyer, who returned to community college to take some property accounting courses. A small real estate company, which grew into a larger firm, hired her, but she still brought in barely enough to pay her mortgage.
“Permanent alimony is a saving grace for a lot of displaced homeowners,” she said. “I strongly believe alimony is necessary.”
Dwyer, 68, although retired, still performs a few accounting jobs to supplement her alimony, Social Security and retirement savings.
Florida is a no-fault divorce state and both men and women can receive alimony. Nationally, 97 percent of alimony payments go to women, according to the Census data.
But the Family Law Section, which shepherded some changes to the state’s laws in 2010 and 2011, is not convinced changes are needed and points to cases like Dwyer’s, a displaced housewife who barely made a living.
“Permanent alimony still has a place in Florida,” said Carin Porras, chair of the Family Law Section of The Florida Bar.
In last year’s legislative session, the FAR’s reform bill overwhelmingly passed the state House 83-30, but opponents bottled it up in the state Senate Judiciary Committee. It died when the session ended.
“There’s a lot at stake. Divorce is a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States,” Frisher said. Hoot said he believes it’s about a $3-billion-a-year business in Florida. Because of legislative rules, Frisher’s group will have to draft a new bill.
Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, have agreed to sponsor the bill in the Legislature. Neither responded to Folio Weekly with comment on the proposed legislation. The bill was filed Jan. 17 in the House.
There are no statewide statistics on the number of divorced couples paying and receiving alimony in Florida, although both Porras and Nancy Dowd, a David Levin Chair in Family Law and professor and director of the Center on Children & Families at the University of Florida, said most divorcing couples reach a settlement and avoid court.
“Alimony is an uncommon outcome of most divorces,” Dowd said.
“The elimination of permanent alimony is something we cannot agree to,” said Porras. Permanent alimony is important when a spouse has spent years raising children and working within the home, but does not have marketable skills to support herself. It is also an important factor when the spouse is disabled.
“The Family Law Section represents both sides and it promotes changes that are appropriate and will be beneficial to both sides,” Porras said.
According to the Office of the State Courts Administrator, 6,443 couples divorced in fiscal year 2010-’11 in the Fourth Circuit, which includes Clay, Nassau and Duval counties. Duval reported 5,007 divorces, followed by Clay with 1,003 divorces and Nassau with 503. In 2011, 84,786 marriages were dissolved in Florida.
The U.S. Census reports that in 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available, 349,000 people nationwide were receiving alimony, but there was no data for Florida.
Permanent alimony forces divorced couples to remain in “a constant state of entanglement,” Frisher said.
“Although no system of spousal support will ever be perfect, a good system will balance the needs of the supported spouse against the burden on the supporting spouse and will ensure that the negative effects of divorce are imposed equally on both partners to the marriage,” he said.
One of the changes made by the Legislature was the emphasis on durational alimony, said Porras.
“Durational has been wonderful,” she said. “The feeling is that durational has been a great tool.”
The current law states, “Durational alimony may be awarded when permanent alimony is inappropriate.”
The new bill is still being drafted, but it includes making durational alimony the default and make alimony last less than 50 percent of the length of the marriage, unless there are special circumstances. It also removes a judge’s ability to make a second spouse’s income or assets be considered in alimony modifications.
FAR also hosts a “Second Wives Club” to promote the plight of women who marry a man paying alimony. Teresa Tezack of Palm Coast falls into that category.
“My husband and I have been married for 11 years, and he has been paying permanent alimony for equal to the length of his marriage to his ex,” she explained in an email.
“When his marriage ended, she left the marriage with more money than he did. During the last 12 years, she has had long-term relationships with two different men. Both of those relationships involved cohabitation and living as if they were married by wearing wedding bands.”
Tezack said when their oldest child graduated from high school, the ex-wife wanted to increase her alimony, and “now the court wants to use my income and savings as a basis to create her support.”
When she was a single woman with a child, Tezack tried to save money as best she could.
“Now, my saving money and being a responsible citizen and mother is backfiring on me, and the court wants to give it to my husband’s ex. She bought all new cellphones and iPods, not me. She had new cars and a rental on the beach, not me,” Tezack said.
“All we ask is for some guidelines and end date,” she said.
In an op-ed column that appeared in The Lakeland Ledger and several Bar publications during in the 2012 session, David Manz, who was then Family Law Section chair, said preservation of Florida’s alimony laws is good for spouses, families and taxpayers.
He contended FAR’s proposed changes to the current alimony laws would strain Florida’s already overwhelmed court system and ultimately increase dependence on social programs by forcing mostly women and children into state-run programs and services because they had no means of support.
Porras questions FAR’s motives.
“They are a special interest group, unhappy about paying permanent alimony awards,” Porras said.