Sneaking in just before the new year, a Florida court issued two surprise decisions which are basically . . . alimony reform. Apparently, some judges have been questioning the constitutionality of awarding retroactive alimony to a spouse. This month, the First District Court of Appeal squarely addressed the issue.
In the first of the two cases, a Former Husband founded a successful company. During their marriage, the parties’ lifestyle was lavish. When they separated, Former Wife was forced out of the business. Both parties have significant resources. However, Former Husband now earns several times more than Former Wife.
Before the final hearing, the parties settled all their claims against each other except for the Former Wife’s interest in the business, attorneys’ fees, and importantly, her demand for retroactive and prospective alimony.
A year after the conclusion of the trial, the trial court entered a final judgment. It adopted much of the Former Wife’s proposed order verbatim. The trial court awarded Former Wife durational and retroactive alimony.
The amount in durational alimony was set at $4,983 a month for six years. Former Husband was also ordered to pay a lump sum of retroactive alimony for a period spanning the date of the petition, April 13, 2018, to the date of judgment on January 15, 2021. The Former Husband appealed.
I’ve written about alimony in Florida. In every Florida divorce case, the court can grant alimony to either party. Not many people realize there are several types of alimony in Florida: bridge-the-gap, rehabilitative, durational, or for the moment, permanent alimony.
Florida courts can award a combination of alimony types in a divorce. Alimony awards are normally paid in periodic payments, but sometimes the payments can be in a lump sum or both lump sum and periodic payments. Typically, courts consider any type of earned income or compensation along with recurring passive income, such as dividends on your investments, in establishing the amount of support you will be responsible to pay.
In Florida, once a court determines there is a need and the income available to pay alimony, it has to decide the proper type and amount of alimony. The court considers several factors, some of which can include things like: the standard of living established during the marriage; the duration of the marriage, and the financial resources of each party.
Florida courts can also award, as the First District Court of Appeal itself has long held, retroactive alimony when appropriate. In fact, retroactivity has been the rule in Florida rather than the exception.
Happy New Year!
Former Husband raised several issues on appeal, most relevant, he argued the trial court erred in awarding both retroactive and durational alimony because, among other arguments, the trial court failed to impute investment income.
The appellate court reversed the award of durational and retroactive alimony based on the argument about imputation. However, the panel agreed with the concurring opinion, in which Judge Robert E. Long commented:
“retroactive alimony is a fiction of the courts and is not supported by any provision of Florida law.”
The concurrence also noted that retroactive alimony was started in Florida in a 1982 case which found that while there is no authority in Florida to award retroactive alimony, there is no law against it.
The rationale for retroactivity was that other states approved awards of alimony retroactive to the date suit is filed. Additionally, it was inappropriate to look to other state’s decisions discussing retroactive alimony. Florida alimony is a unique creature of Florida state law. If the legislature finds another state’s alimony law compelling, it can adopt it. Judges cannot.
For decades, many judges were silently fuming about the rationale for awarding retroactive alimony. Since then, no Florida court has analyzed the issue. Instead, courts have just routinely affirmed retroactive alimony awards – but not based on their legality.
Two months later, the First District Court of Appeal reversed another retroactive alimony award. This time the majority opinion held:
Retroactive alimony is a creation of the courts” prohibited by the separation of powers set forth in article II, section 3 of the Florida Constitution.
Florida alimony modifications expressly provide trial courts the discretion to retroactively modify alimony awards “as equity requires.” But Florida Statutes do not expressly allow a trial court to award retroactive alimony in the first instance.
The most recent opinion is here.
Congratulations to Shannon Novey who represented the appellant.