Why Can’t Ex-Spouses Become Self-Sufficient?

A divorce should not financially destroy an alimony payer or give an alimony recipient early retirement void of financial responsibility.

By Deborah Leff-Kelapire

Alimony laws in Florida are antiquated and must be reformed. Florida is an outlier state because alimony can be permanent and is punitive. Permanent alimony may have been appropriate in a different era when the alimony laws were established, but certainly not in the 21st century where the economic reality is such that most women work outside the home.

Women have equal opportunities to men in terms of education and job opportunities, so much so that females paying alimony to former spouses are on the rise. Based on a recent US Census, only one in five families with children have a traditional male breadwinner and female homemaker.

First and foremost, it must be understood that alimony is provided for the adult ex-spouse and child support is for minor children. Alimony is not intended to sustain the children.

The primary areas of the alimony laws that need to be updated focus on establishing consistent guidelines and duration. Currently, there are no guidelines for determining the amount of alimony awarded; therefore, two similar cases may have widely different outcomes from court to court or judge to judge. Alimony calculations must be simplified and formula-based like child support. Lack of guidelines and formulas create ambiguity of an expected outcome, which prolongs expensive mediation and can lead to costly litigation.

This situation only serves to intensify the emotions of the litigants and drains the family of its assets. Any change in the law must help existing alimony payers as well as future payers. Everyone has the right to retire and everyone should be expected to be self-sufficient. A divorce should not financially destroy an alimony payer or give an alimony recipient early retirement void of financial responsibility.

As long as alimony is paid, a divorce is never final. Alimony should be paid for a reasonable period of time, but certainly not until death. The goal of alimony should change from supporting a dependent lifestyle to creating self-sufficiency. A formula-based alimony would enable both parties to be on equal financial footing for period of time while allowing the alimony recipient time and resources to re-establish their profession or train for a new career in order to achieve self-sufficiency.

Although Florida laws have improved somewhat since durational alimony was implemented in 2010, permanent alimony is still the presumption for long term marriages which is defined at 17 or more years. While the person married 16 years or less is expected to be self-sufficient after the durational alimony is over, the person married 17 years or more does not have any expectation of self-sufficiency. There is no provision in the law for imputed income or expectation that the recipient will ever take care of themselves.

As the law currently stands, the payer must initiate costly modification procedures when they want to retire, transition to a less stressful career if they are having health issues, cannot maintain their earnings as they age, or if they are laid off. There is no guarantee that a modification will result in lower payments. Even in cases of involuntary retirement, the payer may still be obligated to pay alimony until death (Wiedman v. Wiedman  FL 5th DCA 1992).

It’s not uncommon to hear about the 60-year-old employee who is released so the company can replace them with a younger person at a lower salary. Unfortunately, it is at these times where judges sometimes look at the payer’s second spouse’s income and assets, a party that had nothing to do with the original divorce.

How many people have we seen testify in Tallahassee over the last number of years testifying they will be in poverty if the law changes? Had these people, at the time of their divorce began “rehabilitating” their earning skills, wouldn’t they in several years have been able to stand on their own two feet? I do not believe it’s ever too late for most people to do just that.

Right now the law serves to protect the recipient, not the payer. For the payer, it is nearly impossible to save for retirement for many reasons, one of which is that if it is viewed they have discretionary income, he/she might be forced to pay more alimony.

The vast majority of those receiving permanent alimony can and should be self-sufficient. They are men and women in their 40s or early 50s who have had careers and may no longer have minor children at home. More often than not, these people avoid remarriage to keep the alimony while taking advantage of weak cohabitation laws.

The state expects that an 18-year-old high school graduate become self-sufficient immediately upon graduation. If a parent chooses not to help the child beyond 18, that person is on their own. Conversely, the law as it currently stands, considers a 40-year-old person in need of lifetime support if they were a lower earner in a 17 year marriage.

The law must change to serve the majority, while still having safeguards to protect the truly needy.

 

Mrs. Leff-Kelapire’s commentary has appeared in Time Magazine, The Sun Sentinel, and the Miami Herald. She has been interviewed on dozens of national radio and television programs and recently helped form the Florida Family Law Reform PAC.

4 comments

  1. Victor 10 May, 2017 at 14:48 Reply

    Excellent article, that lays the situation, or the cause and the cure on the line in plain English, and in terms easy to understand. Thank you Mrs. Leff-Kelapire for a very instructional, and practical article, that exposes a problem and then offers a solution.

  2. Fred Gearing 11 May, 2017 at 00:06 Reply

    Thank you for a great article. Sounds a lot like my life sadly. Married to my first wife for 21 years and divorced and paying alimony for 15 years. Approaching 60 years old with no hope of retirement. My exwife on the other hand hasn’t worked a full time job in many years and enjoys a much better financial picture than me. It just doesn’t seem right.

    Hope doesn’t seem like a long term strategy but it is all I have for now.

  3. Charles Reinertsen 11 May, 2017 at 14:32 Reply

    Not only are current “family” laws in Florida financially devastating to the worker spouse, they are also family killers! Children, even adult children, are put in the middle of a financial and emotional battle that goes on until death and even beyond. Families are senselessly divided and healthy parent-child relationships are destroyed. All in the name of money and greed. Litigating family law attorneys help create and maintain legal conflict, which increases their billable hours which allows them to make more money and also make larger financial contributions to political candidates who keep the current “family court” process going. The alimony recipient ex-spouse risks losing their monthly alimony check if they pursue a career or get married. So guess what? Most don’t! They choose to stay financially dependent on a Florida worker rather than move on with their own lives. As was pointed out, the tide is shifting to where more women are now paying permanent alimony to capable but lazy ex husbands. Alimony reform is not a man/woman, Democrat/Republican, Black/white or brown issue. It’s a worker/non-worker issue. Absolutely those ex-spouses with physical or age issues must be cared for, but those are by far the minority. States like Texas and Indiana have limits on alimony and do not have “permanent” alimony. They also do not have ex-spouses unable to support themselves filling up the welfare roles. When necessity dictates, people choose to move on with their lives and either get a job or re-marry. When there is no necessity there is no action. Existing laws must be updated to our 2017 society. Those already paying permanent alimony deserve to have their case revisited and the judge allowed to make specific recommendations based on current information. When we penalize our workers simply because they work, and reward our non-workers simply because they remain “needy” it will take its toll on our society. Thank you for printing this important article. If enough people speak up, our laws will change. If we remain quiet, our families will continue to suffer greatly.

  4. Megan DiPrimeo 12 May, 2017 at 23:33 Reply

    I love how eloquently written this was! Straight to the point, fair suggestions for change, and sadly, your words are so very true. Sometimes I can’t believe it’s 2017. We are desperate for reform in all 50 states. Alimony has caused a covert genocide, and the Family Court attorneys, lawmakers, and judges should be held accountable! So many corrupt, heartless pigs have capitalized from this misery. It’s scary.

Leave a reply