‘First Wives’ urge DeSantis to veto reform that lets wealthy ex-husbands undo alimony pledges

By: - March 18, 2022 7:00 am

Camille Fiveash testifies that certain alimony-reform proponents have harassed and threatened her for opposing changes in alimony law. Alimony reform sponsor Sen. Joe Gruters looks aside. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

They call themselves the “First Wives” club, but unlike their Hollywood counterparts, they say they are the ones in the crosshairs.

Camille Fiveash of Pensacola said she was pushed and shoved in the halls of the Florida Capitol, stalked, and tormented with death threats.

She and other women, whose ex-husbands want to relieve themselves of sometimes decades-old divorce settlements, say they have been harassed on social media, described as “alimony leeches” and publicly fat-shamed.

It’s a pattern of behavior by angry, alimony-paying ex-husbands that ex-wife Jan Killilea, an advocate for an informal group of “First Wives,” likens to a “hate group.”

This is the climate in which ex-spouses did battle this year over the state’s alimony law that eliminates permanent alimony, even retroactively, and makes child custody guidelines more favorable to fathers. Along with less controversial goals, it also could subject them to lower child-support obligations.

Adopted over strong objections in the House and the Senate, and not along party lines, Senate Bill 1796 is heading to Gov. Ron DeSantis for approval. Twice before, in 2013 and 2016, former Gov. Rick Scott vetoed similar legislation.

Watching out for the First Wives

Evidence of the hostility between the warring parties was so credible that some of the First Wives said a state senator concerned for their wellbeing directed members of his staff to watch out for them during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, on Feb. 28, when they offered testimony against SB 1796.

“Right here in this Capitol, I had a man shove me, I had a man stalk me, and I have had death threats — death threats! — because of this bill,” Fiveash said in testimony at that hearing.

Fiveash and others attribute that protection to Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami-Dade Democrat who serves on that committee. He did not deny it.

Hearing Fiveash’s lament, Pizzo encouraged her to report such abuse to his staff and he pledged to investigate it.

Asked to confirm if he dispatched peacekeepers during the hearing, Pizzo replied, “I look out for everyone.”

Barbara DeVane, in blue, with Florida NOW, this state’s chapter of the National Organization for Women. Credit: CD Davidson-Hiers

Barbara DeVane, a veteran lobbyist for the National Organization for Women’s Florida chapter, or Florida NOW, says a tight group of ex-husbands and their second wives have for years been making the First Wives’ lives hellish as they push for legislation that relieves them of paying alimony and grants them broader custody rights to use as leverage.

“They know these mothers will give up everything to get custody,” DeVane said. She describes the men as wealthy and influential — and well able to contribute money and otherwise curry favor with lawmakers in support of their alimony-reform campaign.

Typically, mothers continue to be the primary caregivers for children, DeVane says. She noted that the vast majority of parents who stepped away from their careers to care for children during the COVID-19 pandemic have been women, who sacrificed wages and career advancement. She also noted that women continue to be paid less than men for equal work.

A substantially different version

Family-law attorneys with the Florida Bar Family Law Section and the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers say they helped negotiate what they described as more reasonable reform legislation this year that would put an end to permanent alimony in future divorce cases.

But that is not the legislation that emerged from the Senate Appropriations hearing, where bill sponsor Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican, proposed a substantially different version that creates a presumption of 50/50 time-sharing of children and allows permanent alimony agreements to be undone retroactively. Gruters, who also is chair of the Republican Party of Florida, did not disclose why he sponsored the amendment — a departure from the direction of his original legislation — nor where it came from.

“We got an amendment that walks all this good work back,” said Andrea Reid, with the Florida Bar’s Family Law Section, whose support for the bill evaporated when Gruters amended it on Feb. 28. Now, she said, SB 1796 will do harm to many while benefitting few.

“You shouldn’t be doing retroactive changes,” said Philip Wartenberg, a marital and family law attorney and a Tampa magistrate. “We’re trying to protect those people.”

“Tens of thousands of cases will be reopened,” Wartenberg added. “The rules of the road are being changed in a drastic way.”

The ex-husbands pushing the reforms say it’s time to end permanent alimony — including retroactively — and they want to start by phasing out payments when they reach retirement age. SB 1796 also eliminates adultery as a factor in determining alimony.

In smaller numbers, there also are ex-wives paying alimony who feel the same way. One is Natalie Willis, who testified in support of the bill and seconded this statement by Gruters: that ending permanent alimony “allows recipients to become self-sufficient and move on with their lives.”

“Their life is still centered around a marriage that ended many, many years ago,” Willis said, with a sweeping gesture toward the First Wives in the hearing room.

The real benefactors?

“This codifies the right to retire,” said Marc Johnson, chairman of Florida Family Fairness, which advocates for ending permanent alimony. “Florida is in the minority of states that have permanent alimony. Our research shows Florida is behind the times.”

Not so, says Elisha Roy, Florida state president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, whose members represent both men and women in divorces. Roy insists that few states let aging alimony payors renege on divorce settlements made years ago that often include permanent alimony conditioned on negotiated compromises regarding division of money, assets and time-sharing of children.

As for the 50/50 presumption on time-sharing of children, Johnson and other proponents of SB 1976 say it is just old-fashioned to approach it any other way. With the Speaker of the House also campaigning for greater engagement by fathers, the mood looks favorable for enacting the 50/50 provision this year. It still allows judges to depart from the presumption, based on 20 other conditions aimed at protecting the best interest of the child.

Roy said the presumption puts Florida out of step with other states.

“We will be the second state to do this,” Roy said. “I was one of the primary drafters and lead on the passing of legislation in 2008 getting rid of custody and visitation terms in Florida. … The legislation I drafted in 2008 put us ahead of the curve.”

Roy, Reid and Wartenberg predict the real benefactors would be ex-husbands who would feign interest in spending more time with their children but actually just want to reduce their child-support payments. Caught in the crossfire will be the children of these broken marriages.

“The unintended consequences will likely be significant to our most vulnerable — who didn’t ask to be in the situation to begin with,” Roy said.

“We are just hoping that we can convince [DeSantis] that this bill is not only bad policy, but it’s really bad for Florida’s families,” Reid said.

Wartenberg, who as a post-divorce magistrate hears petitions for divorce agreement modifications and enforcement actions, said the new law, if enacted, would put women at a significant disadvantage.

“This is five to 10 monied, reform-minded gentlemen versus thousands of recipients who are, mostly, women,” said Wartenberg, who as a post-divorce magistrate hears petitions for divorce agreement modifications and enforcement actions.

Speaking from his experience in court, Wartenberg said, “I’m concerned about the mother who will give up other things, financial relief, for instance, that might be much needed for her household, just in order to secure the right time-sharing.” He added: “There is that concern of people coming in asking for as much time-sharing as they can get, so that it could reduce what they pay in child support.”

“Sounds like every lady in here has a case”

Despite repeated claims by proponents that SB 1976 is “not retroactive,” Reid and the other family-law attorneys insist that it is, allowing long-term alimony payors to eliminate permanent alimony agreements when they reach retirement age.

Pizzo offered an amendment in the Senate Appropriations hearing that would have cleared away any confusion by stating explicitly that key provisions only apply to divorce cases filed after July 1 of this year. Gruters urged the committee to reject it, and the amendment was defeated.

Johnson said DeSantis is well positioned to enact the legislation rejected twice by another governor. He said the proponents are hopeful the governor’s “parental rights” initiatives of 2022 — supporting anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-Critical Race Theory and anti-LGBTQ interests among parents — will help them prevail.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Chris Sprowls’ “fatherhood” initiative advanced mid-session around the same time Gruters amended his alimony bill. With this year looking like the year of the father, 2022 may be more favorable than prior ones for enacting the alimony reforms, 10 bumpy years in the making.

The First Wives argue that in no year should a new law be allowed to unravel alimony and custody agreements made decades ago, and they hope DeSantis will protect their rights by rejecting the changes, as Scott did. Also of concern, they say, SB 1796 would apply to pending divorce cases, including those in which a well-heeled spouse of retirement age might be relieved of paying any alimony after a long marriage.

After hearing testimony from a series of First Wives about alimony payments and child-support payments in arrears, even Sen. George Gainer, one of the Senate’s oldest members, from a conservative district in northwest Florida, said SB 1796 is confusing, that the reforms would bury the courts in new litigation, and that “retroactivity is intolerable.”

“There’s too many questions,” Gainer said. “Sounds like every lady in here has a case.”

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.