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Outside Gov. Scott’s Office, a Battle Over Alimony Bill’s Elevation of “Father’s Rights”

| April 12, 2016

alimony bill florida

Whose rights? (Jon Grainger)

The scene outside Gov. Rick Scott’s office Tuesday may have been even more acrimonious than the alimony bill awaiting his action.

Men, women and a handful of children crammed into a waiting room, some bearing posters and balloons, attempting to bully each other into changing their positions on one of the legislative session’s most controversial measures, a proposal that would overhaul the state’s alimony laws and change the way judges decide child time-sharing arrangements.

But after a two-hour standoff, the attempts at conversion were futile.

The legislation awaiting Scott’s action (SB 668) lays out a formula based on the lengths of marriages and the incomes of spouses for judges to use as a guide when determining alimony payments.

But the most contentious part of the measure involves not alimony but offspring. It would tell judges that, when determining child-custody arrangements, they should begin with a “premise” that children should split time equally between parents.

Proponents of the bill held a press conference Tuesday morning on the steps of the Old Capitol, an hour before opponents gathered outside Scott’s office to urge the governor to veto the measure.

Scott’s policy director, Jeff Woodburn, met with representatives of both groups, who packed into Scott’s waiting room and at times got into heated exchanges. At one point, proponents of the measure — including many who were clad in red T-shirts emblazoned with messages supporting “father’s rights” — erupted into a chant urging Scott to “Sign the bill!”

Tensions outside Scott’s office grew even higher when one of the governor’s aides escorted Family Law Reform founder Alan Frisher, who has been pushing the alimony overhaul for years, into Scott’s inner sanctum, leaving opponents in the crush outside the locked doors.

Lobbyist Jon Costello — Scott’s former legislative affairs director who was hired by the Family Law Section of The Florida Bar in the waning days of the legislative session — diffused the situation after securing a meeting with Woodburn for Robert Doyle, a retired Polk County circuit judge, and Heather Quick, a Jacksonville divorce lawyer, who oppose the bill.

The crowd outside Scott’s office included divorced fathers who have lost custody battles for their children. It also included second wives who complain about their husbands’ ex-wives refusing to work or marry live-in lovers, which would put the kibosh on alimony payments.

“Signing this bill is a huge step forward in making Florida fair,” said Tarie MacMillan, 65, who said she has been paying alimony for 16 years to her ex-husband, to whom she was married for 13 years.

On the other side, women who said they were victims of domestic violence called for Scott to veto the measure, which they said would keep women trapped indefinitely in abusive relationships.

Doyle, the retired circuit judge, called the proposal “bad for kids.”

“Parents come to court not focused on what’s best for their children but what’s best for them,” Doyle said. “It was all me, me, me. This is a ‘me’ bill for parents.”

After the near-fracas outside Scott’s office, Carey Hoffman, a divorced mother, called a 50-50 time-sharing split for her children problematic.

“We thought when we mediated, that doing a 50-50 timeshare of one week on and one week off would be more stable for the kids. It just isn’t. They need somewhere stable to be and know that everybody loves them instead of being stuck in the middle of all of this. They are the ones suffering through it,” she said.

But divorced father Larry Rutan questioned who could oppose the concept of equal time sharing.

“I mean, you start off with that presumption, and then from there you go and make your assessment about the different individuals,” Rutan said.

Scott, who has been inundated with emails in support of the bill, has until April 19 to sign, veto or let the measure become law without his signature. After his staff met with both sides Tuesday morning, the governor’s office gave no indication how Scott would handle the bill.

“Today, members of the governor’s leadership team met with leadership from both sides of the alimony debate. Also, several members of our citizen services team met with dozens of concerned citizens both in opposition to and support of the bill. We appreciate their opinions and we think it is important for Floridians to be able to have their voices heard. The governor will continue to listen to Floridians that submit thoughts and views on this legislation,” Scott spokesman John Tupps said in a statement.

The alimony measure has been mired in controversy since Scott vetoed lawmakers’ first stab at an alimony overhaul three years ago.

A revised version of the measure, which included the formula included in this year’s proposal, died last year after being enmeshed in a dispute between two prominent lawmakers — House Rules Chairman Ritch Workman, who opposed the child-sharing component, and Senate budget chief Tom Lee, who wanted it included in the alimony legislation.

Late in this year’s legislative session, Workman and Lee reached a compromise regarding the child-sharing language. Instead of requiring a “presumption” of equal time-sharing between parents, the proposal awaiting Scott’s action would instruct judges to begin with a “premise” that children will divide their time equally between both parents.

The Family Law Section of the Florida Bar, which supported the alimony formula, opposed the child-sharing portion of the bill, and hired lobbyists close to Scott — including Costello and Slater Bayliss — to persuade the governor to veto the proposal.

In his veto message in 2013, Scott objected that the measure could have been applied retroactively. While this year’s proposal does not specifically include a retroactivity provision regarding alimony, critics of the proposal, including retired judges, claim that it would enable modifications to current alimony agreements that essentially would create the same problems in the vetoed legislation.

The child-sharing portion of the proposal would only apply to parenting agreements established after Oct. 1, if the bill becomes law.

After meeting with Woodburn, Frisher said that Scott’s aides expressed concern about time-sharing issue.

“Their main concern was with people possibly gaming the system and asking for equal time sharing and not actually spending the time with the children,” Frisher said.

–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida

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6 Responses for “Outside Gov. Scott’s Office, a Battle Over Alimony Bill’s Elevation of “Father’s Rights””

  1. Kendall says:

    Wow. Nothing like painting all families with a broad stroke. The portion of this legislation pertaining to child custody and visitation is dangerous and irresponsible- and extremely unfair to children who will remain caught in the middle. The best approach to parenting agreements, especially when contested, is to appoint a Guardian Ad Litem that is tasked with representing the best interests of the child/children involved. This cuts through the parental drama and gives the children the chance to be heard and considered, on their own terms and in their own words.

    As for the financials, I thought Florida was a no fault state and that there are no exceptions to the 50/50 rule of property division. I do believe there should be financial protections for a spouse who gives up a career to raise a family or who financially supports their partner through school but they should have an end date based on a fair assessment of the time needed for that person to become financially stable and independent. But there should not be a lifetime obligation in most circumstances.

  2. Dave says:

    They always forget the children. I would like to see the written bill, what about a parent that has been found to be unfit, or a parent arrested for abuse, or when that parent has been labeled a predator, the child should not spend equal time with that type of parent. Where is the written text on that.

  3. Carey says:

    Dara, were we at the same rally? The many videos would dispute your assertions of the “standoff”. It seems as though MEN and WOMEN in red shirts in favor of this bill are the aggressors Due diligence has been lost in today’s world of blogging vs reporting.

  4. Dallas Area Low Income Fathers says:

    Kendall why do you believe that the portion of the legislation pertaining to child custody is irresponsible? I for one am happy with the bill, since it does not actually mandate 50/50 parenting. It only puts pressure on judges to at least explain why they think it’s a bad idea, and this can nudge more fathers into having a chance to be involved in their child’s lives.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Questions regarding child custody and alimony should always be decided on a case-by-case basis and be open for revision as situations change. There is no “one size fits all” answer–especially when it comes to the welfare of children. The state’s first priority should always be the children–they have no real voice of their own and too many of them are vulnerable to the toxic implications that arise in domestic situations.

  6. K says:

    Dallas I didn’t say custody should automatically default to the mother, did I? I’m actually a mother to by husbands daughter. She came into my life when she was 8 and my husband gained custody of her a year later. Her birth mother is a piece of crap and eventually abandoned her completely when she was 14. She is now 21 and I am the only mother in her life. And her relationship with her mother was dangerous. Being forced to share 50/50 custody of a child with a person who is mentally unstable, manipulative, disinterested or otherwise affected amounts to nothing less than child abuse.

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