Florida’s Lawyers Must Serve the Citizens of Florida, Not the Legal Profession!

Senator Maria Sachs States the Purpose of the Legal Profession

On Saturday, August 25, 2012, Florida Alimony Reform held a successful Town Hall Meeting in West Palm Beach. Our guest speaker was Senator Maria Sachs (D), an incumbent running against another incumbent due to redistricting in the newly outlined senate district 34.  One of my FAR colleagues and I met with Senator Sachs in early July and learned that not only does she support alimony reform in Florida, but she is willing to sponsor or co-sponsor our alimony reform bill in the Florida Senate this upcoming legislative session assuming she is re-elected to office. (Alimony payers in district 34 take heed!)

The Lawyers Must Serve the People!

When Senator Sachs spoke at the aforementioned FAR meeting, I took notes and here are a few things she said. She stated “…that the lawyers should serve the people, not the legal profession.” She also said “…that under the law, everyone should have an opportunity for putting their lives back together. The laws should be written in order to treat all people equally. This is especially true in cases involving dissolution of marriage.”

My daily prayer as of lately is that Senator Sachs is indeed re-elected and that her words indeed come to fruition this legislative session in the form of new and improved alimony laws that are fair to all parties.

The Lawyer's "Hippocratic Oath"

In May 2004, The Family Law Section (FLS) of the Florida Bar published the latest version of the Bounds of Advocacy - Goals of Family Lawyers (The Goals). The Bounds of Advocacy begins by stating the “Goals for Family Lawyers in Florida”. Here is the Preface:

The idea for the Bounds of Advocacy was originally conceived in November 1987 by James T. Friedman, then president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) and originally published in 1991.   Subsequently, a revision was published in 2000.   In 2002,  Caroline  Black, Chair of the Family  Law Section  of The Florida  Bar, and Chair-Elect  Richard  West, appointed this committee  to review  the Bounds  of Advocacy  of the AAML  and to adapt  them to Florida practice for the guidance of family lawyers in our state.  This committee has reviewed, modified, and adapted the AAML Bounds of Advocacy to conform to Florida law and practice. We submit it to The Florida Bar and the Family Law Section to be used as guidance in this important area of practice.

In this 43 page document, it states that “few human problems are as emotional and complicated, or seem so important, as those people bring to family lawyers. The break-up of a family will be felt not only by the couple but also by other family members, friends, and others with personal or business relationships with the parties. The problems and expense of the family law system can be daunting.”

It also states that “the Goals reaffirm the attorney’s obligation to competently represent individual clients. They also promote a problem-solving approach that also considers the client’s children and family as well. In addition, they encourage efforts to reduce cost, delay, and emotional trauma and urge interaction between parties and attorneys on a more reasoned, cooperative level.”

Other statements made in this document are that “one traditional view of the family lawyer (a view still held by many practitioners) is that of the “zealous advocate,” whose only job it is to win. However, the emphasis on zealous representation of individual clients used in criminal and some civil cases is seldom appropriate for family law matters. Public opinion increasingly supports other models of practice and methods of conflict resolution. A counseling, problem-solving approach for people in need of help in resolving difficult issues and conflicts within the family is another model. This is sometimes referred to ‘constructive advocacy’. ‘Constructive advocacy’ must be the goal of all family law attorneys. This approach must include a consideration of all available means of settling disputes. Family lawyers should recognize the effect that their words and actions have on their clients’ attitudes about the justice system, not just on the ‘legal outcome’ of their cases. As a counselor, the lawyer encourages problem solving by the client.”

Hmmm. Let’s rewind. Family lawyers should recognize the effect that their words and actions have on their clients’ attitudes about the justice system, not just on the ‘legal outcome’ of their cases. It sounds like a paraphrasing of what Senator Sachs stated at our town hall meeting… These bounds don’t just apply to individual attorneys but to the FLS as an entirety.

The Citizens of Florida Must Hold the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar Accountable!

I encourage everyone to read this publication and I will see about making it available on our web site. After reading the document, I conclude that theoretically speaking, the FLS of the Florida Bar is indeed held to a level of ethics that they must abide by. That is, they must serve the people, not the legal profession. Based on this fact, it seems highly likely that our proposed bill will be embraced by the FLS because it truly would make alimony fair in the state of Florida and that alimony will be a win-win for both parties of dissolution as well as their families. The current laws in Florida’s are oppressive, not applied equally, and are not based in the 21st century.

FAR's Proposed Legislation is FAIR.

FAR’s proposed bill was carefully written over several months with the advice of many family attorneys, psychologists, and financial advisors. FAR’s co-directors Alan Frisher and Chuck Reinertsen met with the Family Law Section on September 12, 2012, and now the proposed bill is in their hands. The current laws are lopsided and were written in a different time and era. All you need to do is visit the FAR web site and read the horror stories or watch the video testimonials of some of our members. The proposed bill is a fair and balanced bill that achieves what Senator Sachs had stated.

Not yet knowing what opposition we, the citizens of Florida, will encounter from the FLS as we go forward, I remain hopeful that they will recognize the intention of fairness that went into the writing this bill and they will remain faithful to the Bounds of Advocacy and support our proposed legislation.

Right now, the experience of our FAR members is that alimony provides a great amount of litigation, family unrest and unfair judgments or coerced settlements. Let’s face it. Attorneys make money off injustice because people will go to court to right a wrong. As long as the law is written to allow judges to make unfair judgments in favor of one party over another, the injustice is put in play and the litigation begins. The current reality is in direct opposition to what is demanded in the Bounds of Advocacy. Our proposed bill is firmly in line with the Bounds.

The Bounds of Advocacy Demand Ethical Behavior

As we all await the response of the FLS of the Florida Bar, I do want to remind them of these Bounds and what is expected of them. Just as doctors my take the Hippocratic Oath before they can practice medicine, The Bounds of Advocacy are the legal equivalent of what is expected of family attorneys. I can’t repeat Senator Sachs’ eloquently words often enough – “the lawyers must serve the people and not the legal profession”.

Why is alimony reform necessary? Because thousands of people in our great state are suffering under abusive alimony orders and it is the right thing for our current society. Call me an optimist, but good and doing the right thing will always prevail.

Marital Settlement Agreements Must be Modifiable as part of New Alimony Laws

Why Should Marital Settlement Agreements (MSAs) Be Modifiable?

In the state of Florida when a person files for divorce, there are a series of procedural steps dictated by the court that must be followed including, but not limited to: serving papers to the respondent, preparing financial affidavits, and attending a court ordered mediation. Many marital settlement agreements are a result of the mediation that is mandated by the Courts in which the parties are urged to settle.

The purpose of the mediation is for the plaintiff and defendant (the parties) to try to settle the case before taking the court's time and resources to settle the divorce through the judicial process. Let me repeat, the parties are subject to a court ordered mediation to try to settle the case before they ever get to see a judge. Should the case be settled during one or more mediations, a MSA is signed by both parties and afterwards, presented to the judge to accept the MSA and issue the Final Judgment of Dissolution.

Either Agree to Pay Permanent Alimony or Spend Tens of Thousands of Dollars on a Trial and Then Be Ordered to Pay Permanent Alimony

Currently in Florida, a long term marriage is defined as lasting 17 years or longer and permanent alimony is the default judgment for long term marriages, unless there are very unusual circumstances in a particular case. Even if a couple is married fewer than 17 years (but more than 10 years), permanent alimony is often the judgment. This is the case of many of my FAR colleagues.

One of our FAR members was married for only nine years but still ordered to pay permanent alimony because his former spouse committed felonies during the marriage (why he divorced her) and the judge felt she would not be employable. In the position that I am in Florida Alimony Reform, I have the privilege of getting to know many people and the particulars of their cases.

What I hear over and over again is that during mediation, a client married 15 or more years is advised to agree to pay permanent alimony if they are the higher earning spouse. These folks are told that they can agree to it in mediation, or go to trial, spend tens of thousands of additional dollars on legal fees, and then be ordered by a judge to pay permanent alimony. Further, what exacerbates the situation is the lawyer for the ex-spouse is also advising their client that they are entitled to permanent alimony.

Does Anyone Really "Agree" to Pay Permanent Alimony?

Those who try to "buck" the system and fight, usually learn the expensive way that they were fighting a losing battle all along. If a couple is married less than 15 years, the fight may pay, but it may not. A person has worked a lifetime to build up a nest egg and understands that it will be split between the spouses, less, of course, the legal fees. If you are told by your attorney that you will likely be ordered to pay permanent alimony, your soon to be ex-spouse's attorney s telling them to expect to be awarded permanent alimony, is it worth the gamble of your nest egg to go to court and fight what would most likely be a losing battle? The answer depends on the individual. Some people fight to the bitter end, while others take the more cautious, and often, prudent approach and sign a MSA "agreeing" to pay permanent alimony. Should the person who takes the cautious approach be allowed to modify their MSAs once the new alimony laws become a reality? The answer is an absolute YES.

Let's recap:

Judges order the parties into mediation. Mediation is not an option. It is a judicial order. Attorneys advise their clients to settle and to use the court as a last resort to settle a case. Although the 2011 changes to the law indicate that permanent alimony should only be used when there is no other form of alimony that would be acceptable, we find that permanent alimony is still more oftentimes ordered than not.

Oftentimes, after the emotional toil is taken and retainer fees are used up, the paying party is told that permanent alimony will probably be ordered by the judge anyway. Many times the lower earning spouse is told by their attorney to EXPECT to receive permanent alimony should they go to trial. Most potential permanent alimony payers conclude, based on the advice of their attorneys that it is beneficial to agree to pay permanent alimony and sign a MSA rather than go to trial, deplete their nest egg on legal fees, and then be ordered to pay permanent alimony anyway.

Bottom line, payers who agree to pay permanent alimony in a MSA are essentially "coerced" into doing so, even though they understand that permanent alimony is a payment until death or face jail if they don't.

Will the New Law be Considered a Substantial Change in Circumstances to Modify a Marital Settlement Agreement?

Almost all MSAs have a provision that alimony is modifiable if there is a substantial change in circumstance unless the agreement specifically states it is nonmodifiable. While new alimony laws could be considered a substantial change in circumstances under which a person could seek to modify their agreement, ambiguity and inconsistency in the courts will inevitably result in one judge allowing it, and another judge not allowing a modification. The primary goal of Florida Alimony Reform (FAR) is to make the results of cases predictable so that people can settle their cases within the framework of new and fair laws. FAR strives for predictable results and less ambiguity. As a result, the new law must stipulate that MSAs are indeed modifiable to meet the criteria of the new alimony statutes.

Individuals who settled during court ordered mediation should not be punished because they felt coerced or was a prudent financial decision to do so. Application of the new laws should be applied evenly to all people, not just those who were handed permanent alimony orders by judges.

Why the Antiquated Alimony Laws are a Concern for Everyone

Our Goals for our Children

Most of us work hard to save money for our children's education. We want them to succeed in school so they will be accepted at a good college or university. Here in Florida, we buy the Florida Prepaid College Plan or open up a 529 account to help pay the high costs of education. We make sacrifices to boost college funds. The bottom line is that we want our children to be well educated and be successful in all ways including financially.

Our Children Leave the Nest and Get Married, but Half will not Stay Married

One day, your child grows up, graduates from college and has a career that he or she is proud of.  Maybe a few years later, he or she is in love and announces plans for marriage. The marriage takes place, grandchildren are born, and everyone is happy, or so you think. While it takes two people to agree to get married, it only takes one person to decide they want to divorce. The statistics are what they are- half the marriages will not last.  As unfortunate as it may seem, if you have two children, the probability is that one of them will be divorced at some point. The reasons vary. Lives are uprooted, hearts are broken, fear for our children and their children set in.

Why Florida's Current Alimony Laws May Pose a Serious Problem for your Children or other Loved Ones

Based on our current laws here in Florida, one person will end up paying alimony to their former spouse, very likely permanent alimony. If your child is paying alimony, a substantial amount of his or her hard earned income will go to the former spouse forever, possibly until your child dies. Please don't confuse this with child support because that ends when children are emancipated and are no longer minors. Your child may end up supporting a former spouse even after the children are grown, for the rest of their lives. Is this why you worked hard to save money for their education? I doubt it. Even if this is not your child, it could be your brother, sister, cousin, nephew, niece, parent, grandparent, best friend, etc .

If the thought of this makes you angry, then you've received the message! Everyone needs to care about alimony reform, not only people who are affected today.

Some people are horrified by divorce. They believe it is immoral. While this may indeed be true, depending on your moral or religious beliefs, you cannot stop a person from divorcing, if that is what they want and regardless of whose "fault" the divorce is. Florida, like most states, is a no fault divorce state, so a person can be a horrible spouse, unfaithful, dishonest, etc. and still collect alimony for life. So, DIVORCE HAPPENS, and it happens to half the people getting married.

The Tides are Turning and Women will be Supporting Ex Husbands

Why do I mention your son or daughter, nephew or niece? Why am I not limiting the scope to just men paying permanent alimony? There is a growing chance that your DAUGHTER may one day pay alimony to her former spouse! How does that grab you?

According to a New York Times published August 14, 2012, Just Wait Until Your Mother Gets Home, written by Alex Williams, more and more men are becoming stay at home dads. Here are some of things the article had to say.

IN 2006, James Griffioen was a litigator at a national firm in San Francisco with an 18-month-old daughter and a problem. “Having to go back to the office and work 70 hours a week — or 90, if you want to make partner — that cracked something in me. Something broke,” he said. “It was all the drive and ambition I had as a lawyer. I looked at it over the next five years and thought, ‘There’s no way I’m even going to see my kid.’ "

A Stay at Home Dads Group in NYC. Photo courtesy of The New York Times and Yana Paskova.

So he huddled with his wife, a public interest lawyer. They took a hard look at their relative career satisfaction, discussed their desire to have one parent stay home instead of relying on day care, and decided that it made sense for the family to flip the ’50s sitcom vision of the American family and have Mr. Griffioen, now 35, leave the work force and join the nation’s swelling ranks of at-home dads.

Six years later, he considers himself less a Mr. Mom than a new archetype of the father as provider. “I sort of take things upon myself,” said Mr. Griffioen, whose family has added a son and moved to Detroit. “I don’t go to the store to buy my kids toys. I make them toys. I do woodworking, leatherworking. I learned all sorts of manly skills that I never would have had time to learn if I were sitting in an office 28 stories above San Francisco.”

Will Arnett’s Chris, on the NBC sitcom “Up All Night,” is a lawyer turned at-home dad who is harried and exhausted, like any new parent, but he’s not ashamed of his decision. Far from a “Mr. Mom” buffoon, he might even be considered a postmodern form of hunk, despite his spittle-stained sweatshirts. Similarly, the new novel “Triburbia,” by Karl Taro Greenfeld, reflects an elastic family structure (at least among the economically privileged), where being an at-home dad is no longer considered exceptional.

Without question, more men are available to tackle family duty around the house because of fallout from the financial crisis. 

Federal statistics show that men lost two and a half times as many jobs as women did in the recession.

At-home fathers might strike some as a threat to the “Leave It to Beaver” family structure, except that such a thing barely exists anymore.

In 2011, only 16 percent of American households contained a breadwinner husband and a stay-at-home wife, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Indeed, a modern version of the show might feature June pulling in six figures as a management consultant, while Ward works out of a home office as a Web designer, carving out time between freelance projects to shuttle the Beaver to the skate park.

It would be no surprise if Ward suffered paycheck envy. About 40 percent of women now make more than their husbands, the bureau’s statistics show, and that may be only the beginning of a seismic power shift, if new books like “The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love, And Family,” by Liza Mundy, and “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” by Hanna Rosin, are to be believed.

Ms. Rosin argues in her book, which hits shelves next month, that many professional couples are evolving into free-flowing partnerships, or “seesaw couples,” in which each spouse continually adjusts his or her role in response to changing family circumstances.

“A husband can work to support his wife through school and then she can take over and be the hotshot lawyer,” Ms. Rosin writ

“Anyone can play the role of breadwinner for any period,” she adds.

Such an arrangement is alluring to couples (Brooklyn is full of them) in which the wife maintains a lucrative professional career and the husband works in a creative field, say, as a screenwriter, where the hours are flexible.

That is the case with Christopher Michel, an at-home dad in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. A former Fulbright scholar, Mr. Michel, 35, spends 12 hours a day answering to the needs and whims of his 21-month-old daughter, Akiko, while his wife, Karen Shimizu, heads off to Manhattan to cover the rent as a magazine editor.

So You Think Florida's Alimony Laws Don't Affect You? Think Again!

I will personally advise my son to stay away from marriage until the ridiculous anti-family, anti-marriage laws are fixed. If not, you may one day be letting an adult, permanent alimony paying child move back home because they are in dire financial straits due to our current, antiquated family laws. I know of several people forced to move home with their parents, or rent a room from a friend or relative. Once you become aware of this problem, keep your eyes open and you will realize just how many people are affected by the current laws. Read more at http://www.floridaalimonyreform.com/category/horror-stories/.

A Not So Happy Father’s Day for Permanent Alimony Payers

Father's Day a sad day for permanent alimony payers.

What is Father's Day? For most of us, it means a day for fathers and children to come together to show appreciation and love for each other. For some fathers in Florida who pay permanent alimony, there is a persistent feeling of frustration and sadness that goes along with their particular state of fatherhood. They cannot afford to do for their children what they would like to do.  They must first pay their former spouse, and if they're lucky, they will have enough money left for the children's needs.

A perfect case in point of this situation is my friend and FAR colleague Hector Torres.

My friend's own story of frustration in his own words:

I'm a very good father who has always made his kids his priority in life. In 2001 I got divorced,  a 13 year marriage with 3 kids. In 2006, my oldest son (at the age of 17) came to live with me after my ex-wife literally told him to LEAVE and that she did not want him to live with her anymore.  In 2007, my daughter (at the age of 16) came to live with me after my ex-wife also pushed her out of the house.
So in 2007, I was paying child support for 3 kids even though  2 of the 3  were now living with me. In 2007 I filed a Petition for Modification because I had two of my kids now living with me and my ex had been cohabitating with the same man since 2006.   After fighting more than 2 years in court to reduce or terminate my alimony and to get a reduction in child support, in 2009 the Judge ruled that my ex-wife could continue to receive the same amount in alimony and child support even though my ex-wife was now working at her boyfriend's company, my ex-wife was cohabitating with her boyfriend for more than 2 years, and my ex-wife had 2 less children living with her.
In 2010, my youngest son (at the age of 14) came to live with me after my ex-wife threw him out of the house. It is now 2012 and I have 3 kids that need my help but the alimony law says that I must support my ex-wife before I can support any of my kids . This is a travesty of justice but it happens every day in Florida because the alimony laws are antiquated and the law and the Judges give priority to women over the children. 

Here's what the Florida Family Court Judge had to say.

“The Former Husband testified that the children live with him.  While it is commendable that he has a strong bond with his children and that he wants to support them in every manner, including Hector, Jr., under the eyes of the law Hector, Jr., is an adult, even though he is a young man.  The Former Husband’s obligations are to the Former Wife based on the marriage he had with her.

“The Court must find that there is a substantial change in circumstances, and it is a material change in order to modify what the Court previously ordered based upon the marriage and what Ms. Torres contributed to the marriage before the marriage was dissolved.  The Court cannot consider supporting the adult child in its consideration of change in circumstances.”

Florida law favors an able-bodied ex-spouse over a young "adult" just getting started in life.

The truth is stranger than fiction. You can't make this stuff up. What's worse, Hector's story is not uncommon in Florida. Do the "needs" of an able-bodied adult trump the needs of a young person, still in school, but an "adult" according to Florida law for no other reason than the two adults were once married? In Florida, the answer is an unfortunate yes.

While I have never met the former Mrs. Hector Torres, I do know she is able-bodied, yet the law does not require her to ever help herself. Hector was married for less than 15 years, yet potentially could pay alimony for another 50 years or so, all the while his former wife has absolutely no responsibility for her own life, even though her children no longer live under her roof.

My fiance is in a similar situation as many permanent alimony payers are. It's truly the time for the laws to be updated and reflect our current society.