Litigious alimony laws benefit predatory divorce attorneys at the expense of Florida families.
I practiced family law for several years and witnessed first-hand how Florida’s broken alimony system hurts families, costing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to litigate protracted court cases.
A lot of discussion occurs over the need to improve Florida’s legal climate. I believe fixing alimony belongs in that conversation. Today’s system of vague guidelines for alimony determinations produces dramatically different rulings across not just the state itself, but also within the same jurisdictions.
Overbroad judicial discretion means more litigation and higher court costs for ex-spouses and the children who depend on them. This depletes marital assets that could be equitably distributed between the parties or used to fund alimony payments, as well as results in years of legal proceedings and an adversarial climate that causes more acrimony between former spouses.
Further, it creates incentives for gamesmanship that further draw out litigation, increase court costs, and prevent ex-spouses from moving on with their lives. I saw numerous cases where alimony recipients hid supportive relationships with new partners from judges to prevent their alimony payments from terminating. I also saw the opposite – alimony payors would not remarry for fear their new spouses’ income would be used as a basis for increasing payments to their former spouses. Who benefits from such games? Certainly not the families paying the legal bills.
Many families cannot afford long and costly legal battles and are left on the brink of financial ruin. In the course of this process, divorce attorneys often weaponize the parties’ children over timesharing, seeking any leverage possible to secure more advantageous settlements for their clients.
After all that time and expense, you could be ordered to pay alimony for life to your ex-spouse. Your family has been destroyed. Your finances have been ruined. You can never retire. But the divorce attorneys will have profited over the fight itself.
Proponents of the status quo argue that you can always seek to modify your alimony payments. Sure, you can. But that process costs thousands of dollars, could take years in court, and because of too much judicial discretion, does not mean a judge will rule in your favor. The only certainty regarding modification petitions is more legal bills.
These broken laws have real consequences. I saw this process result in women breadwinners being forever tied to abusive ex-husbands with orders of permanent alimony. I saw children weaponized during the process to gain a financial advantage. I saw seniors unable to retire because they would suffer wage garnishment or even jail time for failing to make their alimony payments.
Fortunately, legislation advancing in Tallahassee would fix Florida’s alimony laws and offer needed protections for families.
Families should be treated fairly and consistently, no matter where they live in Florida. Alimony reform seeks to curb litigation and bring consistency by giving judges clearer guidelines for determining the amount and duration of alimony awards. When lawyers have less room to haggle, judges can make decisions faster and the parties can spend less money on the proceedings. Guidelines also establish defined parameters that the parties can evaluate to amicably resolve cases.
Fixing Florida’s alimony laws also means stopping the games. The post-divorce healing process cannot be complete until both parties are able to move on. Supportive relationships should terminate alimony and new spouses should not be required to pay alimony to their partner’s former spouse.
Requiring judges to begin with a presumption of equal timesharing will prevent lawyers from using children as negotiating leverage.
As a matter of fairness, alimony reform ends lifetime awards in favor of durational support for up to 50 percent the length of the marriage and gives payors the right to retire, not just recipients.
Because alimony reform is designed to reduce litigation and court costs, the legislation does not retroactively affect settled agreements, but it will level the playing field moving forward.
Making Florida’s alimony laws fairer, clearer, and more consistent will protect the finances of already vulnerable families and help the healing process begin more quickly. It is about time we put the needs of families above the bottom lines of divorce attorneys.
Francheska Sabatini is an attorney from Mt. Dora.