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Florida alimony reform laws may tilt the playing field in the wrong direction

Under most circumstances in Florida divorces, if one spouse is ordered to pay spousal support (obligor), the award may be paid in one of three ways: 1) as a lump sum payment; 2) in monthly payments either for a pre-determined amount of time or; 3) as part of temporary arrangement, perhaps until the obligee finishes college or lands a job.

Alimony is awarded to "level the financial" playing field for the spouse who would be at a significant financial disadvantage after the divorce. The obligee generally counts on the additional payments as income.

If passed, the reforms would change everything

In most cases of marriages of short duration of under 10 years, Florida family law judges won't consider permanent alimony except under unusual circumstances. When spousal support is awarded at all, it typically is awarded to the spouse with the lower earning and less prospects in the job market.

Under the current law, judges hear the merits of each party's case regarding whether alimony should or should not be awarded. Based on the specific circumstances of each couple, the judge has the discretion to decide:

  • Whether the obligor spouse has the job skills, experience and opportunity to significantly increase earnings over time
  • Whether the obligee spouse's education and job skills will enhance the opportunity to increase income, or continue to struggle at the same level of employment
  • Whether the conditions of the property agreement put either spouse at a significant financial advantage or disadvantate which may affect future income or assets

If the reform law would have been signed into law by the Governor, new rules would have been put in place forcing judges to restrict alimony awards based on the immediate financial circumstances of each spouse, rather than looking at long-term probabilities.

Reforms look good on paper, but they don't reflect reality

The result of these types of reforms would put judges at odds with the spouse's economic reality, such as:

  • If one spouse has significant education, job skills and earnings potential but is temporarily unemployed, he or she may be earning significantly less during the marital separation period while the divorce is progressing. Does that mean that the employed spouse with a low-paying, dead-end job does not deserve consideration for alimony? According to the reforms, individual incomes should be taken into consideration. But won't that mean that the spouse with greater earning potential may voluntarily remove him/herself from the job market during the divorce process?
  • The spouse who gets the house awarded as part of the property settlement may have equity in the home. Does that mean the spouse who voluntarily gave up the house in the property settlement can argue that the equity and earnings should be counted as future income? What about the expense of living in and maintaining the home? Won't reforms possibly lead to one spouse deliberately agreeing to give up property to avoid spousal support?
  • Short-term disability that may be impacting one spouse's ability to earn significantly more in the marketplace. Would we start to see some spouses deliberately apply for disability in order to avoid an alimony obligation?

Hire the right Florida divorce lawyer

Florida's alimony laws are supposed to help level the playing field. If the laws are reformed to a great extent, however, attorneys for the advantaged spouse could start finding strategies to help their clients avoid paying support, even in cases when it would be clearly warranted.

If spousal support will be an important consideration in your divorce in South Florida, make sure you have an attorney who understands the laws and knows how to protect your rights and financial interests.

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