Best Interests of . . . ? A Look into the Proposed Divorce Bill and Its Potential Impact on Family-Law Attorneys and Their Clients

By April 14, 2016

By Gina Villar
Currently sitting on Governor Rick Scott’s desk is a bill which could drastically change the divorce laws in Florida. Bill 668, authored by Sen. Kelli Stargel and Sen. Tom Lee, primarily seeks to alter the way the courts determine both alimony and timesharing (which ultimately affects child support as well).
First, the bill eliminates the numerous types of alimony, most significant, permanent alimony, and instead replaces it with two formulas designated to determine the amount of alimony and the length of time alimony will be awarded. The proposed “presumptive alimony amount range” gives a low and high end based on the number of years of marriage multiplied by either .015 or .020, representing the low and high ends, respectfully. Those numbers are then multiplied by the difference between the monthly gross incomes of the parties. The proposed “presumptive alimony duration range” gives a low end (.25 x years of marriage) and a high end (.75 x years of marriage) to determine the length of time a spouse is entitled to receive alimony. Math aside, the bill makes clear that permanent alimony, which has long been given to the receiving spouse for the remainder of his or her life, is abolished.
Proponents of the bill state that this approach will more fairly award alimony, especially through the elimination of permanent alimony, which can be burdensome on the giving spouse. But many opponents of the bill, particularly numerous women’s groups around the state, argue the bill places an extremely high financial burden on women. Specifically, many women’s groups such as UniteWomen Florida, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Florida League of Women Voters, are concerned that this bill was created without conducting the necessary economic studies to truly assess the impact this could have on women with children at home.
Those in opposition to the bill are hoping history repeats itself and Gov. Rick Scott vetoes the bill, as he vetoed a similar bill proposed in 2013. However, in 2013, Gov. Rick Scott stated he rejected the bill mainly because it applied retroactively, which quite possibly would have led to insurmountable lawsuits. This bill, however, has been revised and now suggests the only way to modify existing orders is if there is a “substantial change in circumstances,” a phrase not uncommon to family law attorneys arguing to modify alimony, child support, or even timesharing plans.
The timesharing law proposed in the bill has also left opponents skeptical that the bill no longer seeks to protect the best interest of the child. The revolving “best interest of the child” standard is a long-standing theme surrounding child support, timesharing, and almost all family-law disputes.
Bill 668 now begins with the premise that a minor child should spend equal time with both parents: ultimately a 50/50 timesharing plan, as opposed to the established premise that the court should award timesharing based on the best interest of the child. While proponents of the bill argue the 50/50 timesharing presumption is actually in the best interest of the child, opponents, believe this new presumption completely circumvents what is best for the child and instead could be used by father’s to their advantage during mediations and other settlement negotiations.
If the bill is not vetoed, attorneys opposing the 50/50 timesharing plan will now have to be prepared to present evidence to overcome the presumption. The burden has shifted and will be placed on the party seeking to challenge the 50/50 timesharing presumption. While not an impossible hurdle, it is one family-law attorneys should be mindful of as April 19 approaches, the deadline for Governor Rick Scott to veto the bill.