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Florida and New Jersey Alimony Injustices

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Because alimony laws vary from state to state, the national media have usually steered clear of the issue. But that is changing fast, with "Fox and Friends" recent broadcast on the subject and USA Today's sweeping article on the reform movement, "Should Alimony Laws Be Changed?," on January 19.

The article leads with the story of a 72-year-old Florida man, bedridden with advanced Alzheimer's, who has been paying $2100 a month in permanent alimony in a marriage that ended 20 years ago, despite five trips to court to attempt to end or lower payments.

After Massachusetts overhauled its antiquated laws in late 2011, advocates in Florida and New Jersey are hoping to follow suit, since their laws are every bit as out-of-date as Massachusetts' were -- left over from when divorce was rare and married women had no choice but to stay home.

Florida is further along than NJ; In November, identical bills, HB 549 and SB 748, were introduced in the Florida House and Senate to update and streamline current law by limiting the amount and duration of alimony. The New Jersey legislature is establishing a commission to study the issue -- a big step in the right direction -- though those who pay lifetime alimony (and sometimes end up in jail when money runs out because of job loss or illness) are not sure a study is necessary.

USA Today's focus on Florida's Linda Morgan, who cares for her bedridden husband 24/7, points out the injustices of permanent lifetime alimony. Ms. Morgan made a You Tube video of how she takes care of her husband daily, in hopes of convincing Florida legislators to reform the law.

In both Florida and New Jersey -- and formerly Massachusetts -- the default position is lifetime permanent alimony, which means the higher earner pays the lower earner even if both are working full-time and making good money, until death. If a payer retires, or is forced to, he (usually "he" but sometimes "she") has the burden of filing a new lawsuit and pleading for mercy -- which is in short supply, since the "needs" of the alimony recipient are paramount, even when "needs" appear to be taken care of with the recipient's full-time employment.

"We receive emails every day from people suffering under these outdated laws," explains Alan Frisher, co-director and spokesman for Florida Alimony Reform (FAR). "Men whose wives suddenly declare they are lesbians leave the marriage and receive lifetime alimony. Healthy women in their early 30s are awarded lifetime alimony. Women cohabiting with boyfriends for 20 years still receive lifetime alimony. Men raising their children because the mothers don't want to are nonetheless forced to pay alimony they simply do not have. People who once made a good living are declaring bankruptcy and going to jail because of these laws."

Because of the vagueness of current law, and the out-of-date attitudes of many judges, setting limits on the amount and length of alimony are critical issues in rewriting the laws. Yet it's precisely those provisions that have already been deleted from the Florida House bill, HB 549, as it moves through the legislative process. This has many alimony payers -- and their strapped families -- alarmed.

Frisher points to the recent case of a Tampa man stricken with cancer forced to pay more than 70 percent of his income in alimony. He won a reduction on appeal, but when the case was returned to the lower court, his payments were increased instead. He has another hearing on Valentine's Day and hopes for the relief he should have been granted long ago.

While divorce lawyers often favor the judge having "discretion" in making alimony awards, thus complicating every case, many lawyers admit there is a need for reform and some have positive things to say about Florida's proposed legislation. "There are good things in the bill," Orlando attorney Amy Goodblatt told me in a recent interview. "It gets rid of permanent alimony. That's the best thing since sliced bread. And I like the bill because it's generated conversation."

She is also in favor of guidelines for the amount and duration of alimony. "Most practitioners would be grateful for guidelines," she said, "because it's difficult to tell people what to expect. Decisions are judge-specific. The same judge on a different day makes a different decision. This makes it difficult to settle cases. People would settle more if they had quantifications."

Attorney Goodblatt also noted, "The court system may be cost prohibitive to a lot of people." Because of that, she said, "Fifty percent of cases are pro se," meaning that people represent themselves, "and judges hate pro se cases."

FAR's Alan Frisher contends that the limitations in the original HR 549, for alimony amounts and duration, are an effort to bring justice to all payers, including those who cannot afford legal counsel, almost always because their legal fees and alimony payments have decimated their resources.

Also in support of guidelines is Central Florida attorney Richard West, a past chairman of the Florida Family Bar Law Section, whose practice includes collaborative law. "One of the problems," he said in a recent interview, "is that there is no predictability in awards in amount or duration. I recognize the need for judicial discretion, but cases need to be settled, not litigated. If there were guidelines, it would enhance the ability to settle." West believes that "Alimony is somewhat archaic. It will become outmoded. Our statutes are rooted in the past."

According to Tom Leustek, a professor who helped found NJ Alimony Reform after being ordered to pay lifetime alimony to his psychologist ex-wife, who has a PhD. and a private practice, New Jersey's lifetime alimony payers include an 83-year-old man with dementia, living in a nursing home, whose wife divorced him once he was hospitalized, after they split their marital assets 50/50. The incapacitated man's legal bills were $40,000, and his family claims the alimony payments are needed to take care of him. Another recent case is that of a stockbroker whose income has decreased by two-thirds since 2008. He cannot get a reduction in payments despite many attempts. His wages were garnished. He has been imprisoned once, placed into work release twice, and was under house arrest with a GPS ankle bracelet. Failure to get permission to visit a friend on Christmas Day resulted in a court order to pay $2,000 towards arrears by Feb 1 or return to jail.

Elizabeth Benedict, a novelist and journalist, wrote the Boston Globe op-ed piece in 2008 that ignited the alimony reform movement in Massachusetts.