FL governor vetoes alimony overhaul, marking its third failure in a decade of reform efforts

By: - June 24, 2022 6:18 pm

Sen. Joe Gruters, chair of the Republican Party of Florida, sponsored the alimony overhaul vetoed Friday by Gov. DeSantis. Screenshot: The Florida Channel

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday vetoed an alimony overhaul bill that was sponsored by the state chairman of his political party and opposed by the National Organization for Women, the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar, and other critics.

It was the third strike in a decade for groups of ex-spouses seeking to put an end to permanent alimony not only in future divorce settlements but in agreements made years and decades ago.

DeSantis’ veto message focused on retroactivity in Senate Bill 1796, even though its advocates denied it would apply to preexisting alimony agreements.

Former Gov. Rick Scott vetoed similar legislation in 2013 and 2016.

“If CS/CS/SB 1796 were to become law and be given retroactive effect as the Legislature intends, it would unconstitutionally impair vested rights under certain preexisting marital settlement agreements,” DeSantis wrote in his veto message. He cited article I, Section 10, of the Florida Constitution.

Democratic lawmakers and a few Republicans also opposed the bill during the 2022 regular session.

‘Profundly proud’

Jan Killilea, speaking for a group of ex-spouses, mostly women, who call themselves the First Wives Advocacy Group, expressed gratitude that SB 1796 failed like its predecessors, but she said the recurring battle has taken its toll on her and other “First Wives.”

“I am profoundly proud of the women and men who had the intestinal fortitude to stand up for what they believe in,” Killilea, marketing director at a small business in West Palm Beach, said in a text message to the Phoenix.

“For almost 10 years, we’ve been dodging arrows while opposing the alimony reform bills. Today, our governor put an end to the fight for 2022.”

Five days ago, still awaiting the governor’s decision on whether to sign or veto SB 1796, Killilea expressed fatigue and dismay.

“Our group has reform fatigue,” she wrote. “We continue to fight for all the women who don’t have a voice and won’t know how this happened if he [the governor] signs the bill. … We’re tired of these wealthy men trying to dispose of us.”

Tampa trial lawyer Marc Johnson, chairman of the alimony-reform group Florida Family Fairness, blasted the governor for his veto.

“We are incredibly disappointed by the veto of this much needed bill. Today, Gov. DeSantis chose divorce lawyers over Florida’s families and parents who love their children and who want to be a part of their lives,” Johnson wrote Friday.

“I am personally disappointed that special interests continue to control policy decisions in Florida, to the detriment of hard-working individuals that continue to be taken advantage of when going through the hardest time of their lives,” Johnson continued.

“Gov. DeSantis disregarded the will of the people and Florida’s elected officials who passed this excellent bill.”

The bill’s sponsors included Sen. Joe Gruters of Sarasota and Charlotte counties, who is chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, and Lee County Republican Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka. The state Bar’s Family Law Section and the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers testified against the bill during session and urged DeSantis to veto it.

“From the very beginning of the 2022 legislative session, we voiced concerns over the retroactive impact of Senate Bill 1796. If signed into law, this legislation would have upended thousands upon thousands of settlements, backlogging the courts and throwing many Floridians’ lives into turmoil,” said Tampa family-court magistrate Philip Wartenberg and Boca Raton family-law attorney Heather Apicella, chair and immediate past chair of the state Bar’s Family Law Section, in a joint statement.

“We thank Gov. Ron DeSantis for vetoing this measure and for understanding the bad precedent the retroactivity of the bill would have set for settled contracts in the state of Florida.”

Retroactivity disputed

Florida Family Fairness and the bill sponsors had insisted SB 1796 was not “retroactive” in its effort to let ex-spouses stop paying permanent alimony when they reach retirement age.

“The concept of ‘retroactivity’ is a red-herring put forth by the FLS [Family Law Section] and First Wives (and husbands),” wrote the group’s treasurer Michel Buhler, a Coral Gables businessman, in a May 14 letter to the Phoenix, slightly amending the First Wives group’s name to reflect that men are members, too.

“In Florida, any court order for alimony or settlement agreement that is not expressly non-modifiable is always subject to modification by the court upon a substantial change in circumstances. For First Wives (and husbands) to claim that they relied on the permanence of permanent alimony awards may be true, but that’s nowhere guaranteed by law. ”

SB 1796 also would have established a 50/50 presumption for time-sharing of a divorcing couple’s underage children; eliminated adultery as a consideration in alimony agreements; and set a financial floor for spouses losing permanent alimony to keep them from falling into poverty defined as 130 percent of the federal poverty threshold (around $18,000 per year for a single-person household, and around $43,000 for a family of five, according to the American Council on Aging).

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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.