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Senate Passes Divisive Alimony, Child Custody Revisions

Senate Session held at 10 a.m. on March 4.
Florida Channel
Senate Session held at 10 a.m. on March 4.

An emotionally charged bill revising alimony and child custody law passed the state Senate on Friday, moving a step closer to becoming law after several years of unsuccessful attempts.

The legislation would end lifetime alimony, replacing it with formulas for payment amounts and duration depending on the length of the marriage and the spouses' incomes.

It urges judges to consider equal time sharing with children for divorcing parents, and specifies circumstances to consider in deciding time sharing.

Backers including influential Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, say the bill would bring consistency and predictability to alimony awards, cutting litigation. They contend near-equal time with both parents is in a child's best interest, and that presumptions that mothers should predominate are outdated.

Opponents say the bill would harm women who give up careers to be stay-home mothers. Urging judges to consider equal time-sharing, they have said, could push them away from putting children's best interests foremost.

Lee added an amendment to the bill Friday so the time-sharing provisions would apply only to future custody settlements, quieting some objections.

During committee debates over the bill, a parade of opponents, mostly women, told stories of being left in penury by well-heeled spouses after giving up their careers to raise children.

A few alimony payers told of being ordered to pay alimony for life to spouses who refuse to try to support themselves.

The National Organization for Women and League of Women Voters opposed the bill.

Gov. Rick Scott vetoed similar alimony changes in 2013, saying they would unfairly affect existing settlements. Bill sponsor Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said the bill was revised to eliminate retroactivity.

Still, critics said they bill would put women in existing marriages in danger of poverty.

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said 97 percent of alimony recipients are women, and that the bill would victimize "the spouse who gave up everything at the age when she could have moved on in her career ... and then divorce happens. We get kicked to the curb and in court, and it's about the money."

Stargel said the bill's formulas would cut the emotional incentives for costly litigation.

The Senate approved the bill 24-14, and it appears to have a pathway to a House floor vote. Bill sponsor Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, says supporter Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, has agreed to bring it to the House floor in place of a similar House bill Burton sponsored.

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