Does the length of your marriage matter for alimony anymore? Some people are asking that after a recent decision by a Florida appeals court re-wrote the rules for measuring what a long-term marriage is. The Regular Session of the Florida legislature convened in January, and alimony reform is a hot topic in Tallahassee.
Trouble in Tallahassee
The Florida House of Representatives is currently convening in Tallahassee to debate House Bill 843 on Dissolution of Marriage. The bill makes a few changes to the divorce statutes, especially alimony.
The bill also redefines the amount and duration for bridge-the-gap, rehabilitative, and durational alimony, prohibits ordering a spouse who retired prior to a divorce to pay any alimony, except temporary alimony, unless the court determines otherwise and allows payors to modify alimony up to 12 months before his or her anticipated retirement.
The bill removes presumptions about the length of a short, moderate, or long-term marriage, eliminating permanent alimony (but allowing it if agreed to), prioritizing bridge-the-gap alimony, followed by rehabilitative alimony, before any other form.
Meanwhile, across town in Tallahassee, a recent appeals case from the First District Court of Appeal may throw fuel on the fire. After 16 years and 11 months of marriage, a husband asked for dissolution of the marriage.
The judge granted permanent alimony to the wife. The husband appealed saying the trial court should not have awarded permanent alimony, and should instead have given her durational alimony.
Why? The husband argued they were only married 16 years and 11 months — that’s just one-month shy of the statutory presumption of a “long-term” marriage under Florida statutes. But the trial court treated his marriage as if it were a long-term marriage of 17-years or more – even though it clearly was less.
Florida and the Length of Marriage
In Florida, the duration of a marriage always played a very important role in divorce cases. I’ve written about the types of alimony awards available in Florida before. For instance, Florida Statutes dealing with alimony specifically limit the type of alimony awards based on the duration of the marriage.
For determining alimony, there is a rebuttable presumption that a short-term marriage is a marriage less than 7-years, a moderate-term marriage is greater than 7-years but less than 17-years, and long-term marriage is 17-years or greater.
Florida defines the duration of marriage as the period of time from the date of marriage until the date of filing of an action for dissolution of marriage.
In addition to alimony, the duration of marriage is also a factor in property divisions. When a court distributes the marital assets and liabilities between the parties, the court begins with the premise of an equal split.
Changes to Alimony?
The appellate court ruled that despite the statute, being one month shy of the statutory definition of “long-term” was a de minimis period given the length of the marriage, and that the family law judge was allowed to overcome the presumption as to the length of the marriage to qualify it as a long-term marriage.
In Florida, we have a rebuttable presumption that a long-term marriage warrants an award of permanent alimony. This court argued that even if the parties’ marriage falls into the “grey area” between a long and a short-term marriage, the family judge can consider other factors beyond the duration of the marriage.
Other factors can include the earning capacity of the recipient of alimony. For instance, there was evidence that the wife’s health precludes employment. While she was just 53 years of age at the time of the divorce, her age was not a valid basis to deny permanent alimony absent evidence her relative youth would allow her to earn income sufficient to support a lifestyle consistent with that she enjoyed during the marriage.
What impact will this decision have on the Legislature, since they are considering scrapping permanent alimony altogether, and re-writing the rules around what the duration of a marriage is?
The new bill will require courts to consider the standard of living established during the marriage, and make specific consideration of the needs and necessities of life for each party after the marriage is dissolved, including a rebuttable presumption that both parties will inevitably have a lower standard of living than that which they enjoyed during the marriage.
The court of appeals opinion is here.