Rarely does vetoed legislation draw the flurry of wide ranging editorial commentary we have recently seen in response to Governor Scott’s decision to veto SB 668. Take for example, the title of an article by Leslie Loftis of “the Federalist” on April 18, 2016, which states: “Florida Gov. Rick Scott Ignores Families, Protects Disastrous Divorce Law”. On the opposite end of the spectrum, an editorial published in the Tampa Bay Times states: “Governor smart to veto family law changes”. Among other things, the Bill would have reformed Chapter 61.08 – Florida’s alimony statute and Chapter 61.13 – Florida’s child custody or “time-sharing” statute.
Proponents of the new law were dismayed that the Governor vetoed this Bill, for the second time. In his veto letter, Governor Scott wrote that in a divorce, “the needs of the child must come before all others” when judges determine parenting schedules, something now required by Florida law. This bill has the potential to upend that policy in favor of putting the wants of a parent before the child’s best interest by creating a premise of equal time-sharing. Our judges must consider each family’s unique situation and abilities and put the best interests of the child above all else”. Senate Budget Chief Tom Lee was perplexed by the Governor’s veto. Speaking for many advocates of the vetoed legislation, he had two concerns. First, he questioned how the proposed legislation would have the effect of “putting the wants of a parent before the child’s best interests”. Second, the Governor had not articulated his concerns about the child custody portions of the bill, prior to his veto. Senator Lee had previously met with Scott’s staff, in an attempt to address the Governor’s concerns in regard to the 2013 legislation. Lee and the bill’s other advocates had incorrectly assumed that the bill would be signed by Scott upon its second attempt, after removing text that made the alimony revisions retroactive.
Opponents of the legislation seem convinced that the child custody portion of the bill would in fact create a policy of “putting the wants of a parent before the child’s best interest”, as the Governor suggested. One of the leaders of the opposition was the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar. Maria Gonzalez, chair of the Family Law Section, and a family law attorney in south Florida, believes that the creation of any presumption in child custody cases would be contrary to the best interests of the child. Ms. Gonzalez and the Family Law Section lobbied for the veto, and consequently in favor of retaining the current law which makes no presumptions about child custody. The current statute instead utilizes twenty (20) factors for the family law courts to consider when creating or modifying a timesharing schedule.
Since the Governor’s letter specifically addressed the child custody portion of the bill, most of the subsequent editorial comments have not focused on the other significant result of his veto: Florida law will continue to allow for permanent alimony. Interestingly, media reports indicate that the Governor’s office received around 11,000 calls and emails regarding SB 668. Sources stated there were approximately 4 supporters for every 1 person opposed to the bill.
Massachusetts and New Jersey have already passed new legislation to effectively end permanent alimony, in favor of a durational scheme. Several other states including Oregon, Connecticut, and South Carolina are also contemplating changes that would reduce the duration of alimony payments.