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Elizabeth Benedict

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Space Shuttle Sinks, Florida Alimony Wars Soar

Posted: 08/29/11 05:00 PM ET

The end of the 30-year-old Space Shuttle Program is old news, but every layoff hits every worker and every family hard when the pink slip finally comes. And a new round of layoffs is scheduled for October.

The folks who lose their jobs at the Kennedy Space Center have a special burden that those at the Houston office don't. In Texas, alimony is limited to three years after a 10-year-long marriage. In Florida, family courts are heavily biased against men, and much of the alimony that's doled out, even to women in their 30s and 40s, is permanent. There's an industry of attorneys who only represent men, including Mens Divorce Law in Orlando. It's the boys vs. the girls from the get-go, and the prevailing attitude is that men are sugar daddies and women are helpless.

Ninety-seven percent of alimony payers are men. In rare cases in Florida, when women are ordered to pay alimony, it's invariably short-term.

Walking papers in hand, laid-off workers must return to divorce court, plead for relief in their alimony payments, and hope against hope that it's coming. It helps to show up with a lawyer, and it helps to expect the worst. A judge told a petitioner several years ago that he should have been saving money for alimony in case he lost his job.

One laid-off worker already filed court papers. What should be an ordinary adjustment escalated once his ex-wife claimed that he, a lead engineer on 100 Space Shuttle launches, quit work voluntarily. Her lawyer is demanding three years of pay stubs and bank statements--and threatening to plunder his 401K for her legal fees. He fears the worst; he declared bankruptcy after his divorce. His attorney wanted--and got--$10,000 up front.

For him and other payers, there is no automatic end to or reduction in alimony, even at retirement, even when the payer is disabled or retirement is required, as with airline pilots. Couples divide marital assets, including pensions--or judges divide them, often giving women more than half--and the payer is expected to work forever or use his assets to pay alimony, even though the ex has gotten her fair share. A payer's new wife can even get embroiled when the ex-wife makes a claim on her resources.

Payers are afraid to tell their stories because they're ashamed, don't want to hurt their children, and because going public might hurt a court case.

Last year, the Florida legislature made a few changes in the laws, and cut down on the wholesale awards of permanent alimony to all, but did nothing to protect people who want or need to retire, and nothing to help the thousands of payers already burdened by crushing debt, with no light, ever, at the end of the tunnel. This year, a grassroots organization, Florida Alimony Reform, is pushing for real change. Opposition will come from the Florida Family Bar, a powerful force in state politics.

Florida citizens - and certainly those who served the Space Shuttle so well - don't deserve to be punished twice, with job loss and another expensive, unnerving trip to divorce court.

As the Space Shuttle sinks, Florida's alimony wars are set to soar.

This appeared originally in the Good Men Project magazine.

Elizabeth Benedict is a novelist, journalist, and college essay coach who wrote the Boston Globe op-ed that ignited the reform movement in Massachusetts. For a copy of the op-ed, please send an email: info@elizabethbenedict.com.