Attorneys unsure of alimony legislation

Bill also changes child-custody rules

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A revamping of divorce laws that amends alimony and child-custody policies was passed by the Legislature and is on its way to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.

Two local attorneys have doubts as to whether changes are needed and what consequences might result from the changes.

Matthew Hunt with the Law Offices of John M. Phillips has since 2008 been representing clients in divorce court. He has mixed emotions about the changes.

“I’m optimistic and hopeful that this may help streamline certain things,” he said. “But it might not work as intended.”

Heather Quick, attorney and CEO of The Quick Law Group, doesn’t believe the procedure needs to be changed.

“The judges do a fine job with the system we have. The Legislature is taking over the judiciary,” she said.

If the governor signs the bill, judges no longer will grant lifetime alimony payments and would have to order the amount and duration of alimony based on how long the couple was married and the difference in their income.

The bill also includes a change regarding how much time children should spend with each divorced parent, a judge’s decision that also affects child-support payments.

The current legislation does away with the presumption that children should spend time equally with both parents.

Judges instead would “begin with the premise” that children’s time would be shared equally by their parents before considering other issues related to the case.

Scott vetoed a bill sent to him in 2013 that also sought to change some of the rules in Florida divorce actions.

During the debate last week in Tallahassee, House Rules Committee Chairman Ritch Workman — who said he fought for and was granted equal-time sharing with his children when he was divorced — called the bill a way to ensure both parents are on the same terms in a divorce action.

“It will allow men and women to walk into a courtroom and have the premise that they’re equally as good,” he said. “At the end of the day, this looks at the kids.”

Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, said during the debate the changes will make circumstances “a little bit easier during a really emotional and trying time for families.”

Hunt supports the time-share provisions of the bill.

“I like the presumption that both parents should be equally involved,” he said, but cautions that each case still will have to be evaluated individually.

Hunt said the 50-50 provision is not a “catch-all,” and the court has to look at the best interest of the children, not the best interest of the parents. “There is no cookie-cutter divorce,” he said.

“The premise of 50-50 creates a standard judges will have to evaluate — and that’s not for the Legislature to do,” said Quick.

Hunt predicts the part of the bill that would allow non-permanent alimony could create issues for some divorced people, particularly when a couple divorces after many years of marriage.

“If one spouse stayed home and didn’t go to school or work, I have a feeling there may be negative ramifications,” he said, referring to the possible end of alimony for a person with little or no higher education or job experience.

Quick agreed and was more direct.

“It will be financially detrimental to the women of Florida,” she said.

Quick cited the example of a 50-year-old woman who is divorced after staying at home with the children while her husband had a career.

If alimony ends after a certain period, she said, “We’ll have women who won’t be able to support themselves. Who’s going to take care of them?”

Quick said the best-case scenario is for Scott to veto the bill as he did in 2013. But if he signs it, she predicts it will lead to litigation.

“We’ll have to live with the law until it’s challenged in court,” she said.

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