Blog author Sandy T. Fox focuses exclusively on the area of marital and family law. In this resource you’ll find a lot of information, and it’s all divided into simple, accessible categories. All you need in one place.
Marital settlement agreements (MSAs) can be wonderfully helpful tools for some divorcing couples in reducing the amount of time, stress and acrimony that can sometimes be involved in litigating issues before a judge. The key to resolving your issues by agreement, though, is to be sure that you fully understand everything in your agreement and that the agreement is a fair resolution. To aid in those goals, as well as all the other ones related to your case, be sure you have reliable South Florida family law counsel on your side.
For an example of how a seemingly straightforward MSA can eventually lead to considerable litigation, there’s the recent case of H.W. and D.W. As a bit of background, H.W. and D.W. had been married for 17+ years when they divorced in 2008. That meant that, under Florida law, theirs was a “long-term” marriage, which could potentially impact certain divorce-related things like alimony.
The couple, however, resolved alimony (among other things) through an MSA. The spouses signed not only an MSA, but also an addendum to that agreement. The documents required the husband to make monthly alimony payments to the wife of 30% of his income or $2,000, which ever was more. The agreement also required him to keep paying until she died, remarried or entered into a cohabitative relationship.
The law is full of multisyllabic words that sound almost like a foreign language to most any lay person. However, within all of that “legalese” can sometimes be found some rules or standards of law that can make all the difference between success and failure in your case. Family law is no exception. While there’s no reason why you, as a lay person, should know what a “rebuttable presumption” is, it is something that can make all the difference between receiving an award of permanent alimony and receiving an award of alimony that lasts only a few years. All of this just goes to show that your family law case needs the skill and knowledge of an experienced South Florida family law attorney.
As an example, take the case of E.G. and R.G. The pair had been together for what Florida law defines as a “long-term” marriage. In Florida, a marriage of less than 7 years is deemed to be a “short-term” marriage, 7-17 years is a medium-term marriage and more than 17 years is long-term. These distinctions can matter a great deal when it comes to divorce issues like alimony. For example, if your marriage meets Florida law’s definition of a long-term marriage, and you are the spouse entitled to receive alimony, then the law says that there is a “rebuttable presumption” that you are entitled to permanent alimony.
So, what does that “rebuttable presumption” language mean? Unlike most situations (where a contested topic is considered not proven until one party presents sufficient evidence to prove it), a topic that is the subject of a rebuttable presumption is considered to be true until the opposing party proves that it isn’t.
For many couples, an uncontested divorce, or at least reaching mutual agreement on some of your issues, can be a very helpful and important part of the divorce process. The more matters upon which you agree, the fewer things you will have to litigate in front of the judge. This can save time and money and possibly reduce acrimony. When you resolve an issue or issues by agreement, though, it is very important to be careful you understand how that agreement is structured. Even just minute inclusions or exclusions in your agreement can massively alter the impact on you in the long run. This is one of many reasons why you should consult an experienced South Florida family law attorney before signing off on any agreement.
For an example of what we mean, look at the divorce case of D.I., a husband from the Tampa Bay area. D.I. and his wife reached an agreement on the issue of alimony. The terms of that agreement were eventually included in the couple’s stipulated divorce decree. The decree stated that the husband owed the wife $800 per month in alimony and that the alimony obligation was to continue for the remainder of the wife’s life.
There was no “or until the wife remarries” wording or “until the wife remarries or enters a supportive relationship” language. The decree contained no wording at all that allowed for termination of the husband’s alimony obligation other than at her death.
A divorce case may often revolve around matters like child custody and child support, alimony and property issues like who gets the house and the cars. Other times, they’re much more complex, especially if one or both spouses held ownership interests in one or more companies. When that happens, it is particularly important have knowledgeable Florida family law counsel on your side to make sure that your issues are handled skillfully.
C.B. and K.B. were a couple whose case presented that type of situation. They separated in 2014 after almost nine years of marriage. The pair had two sons together. They also owned and operated several businesses together.
When a couple like this divorces, there are a wide variety of issues they may need to resolve. In that type of situation, the more issues you can resolve through agreement, the more time and expense you may be able to save. Even then, it is important to be sure you get the right marital settlement agreement. In this couple’s case, they were able to resolve all issues related to their children, but division of assets was not something upon which they could agree completely. They agreed upon most asset-related things, but could not decide how to divide a real estate holding company that they co-owned.
A few years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case involving an ex-wife, a surviving widow and a deceased man’s life insurance proceeds. The man had named the ex-wife as his beneficiary while they were still married, and then never changed that designation. The widow argued that she should get the money because she was the surviving spouse. The ex-wife argued that the money was hers because the law required honoring the designation attached to the policy. The court ruled for the ex-wife, because the law allows for disregarding beneficiary designations only in rare circumstances, and this was not one of those.
What does all this mean if you are named as the beneficiary of your ex-spouse’s life insurance policy as part of your divorce settlement? If your ex-spouse subsequently creates a new beneficiary designation without your knowledge that names someone new after your divorce is finalized, will the law honor that changed designation and will you lose that insurance money when your ex-spouse dies? As a recent case originating in the Orlando area demonstrates, the answer is no. As always, to find out exactly how the law applies to your specific circumstances, be sure to consult a knowledgeable South Florida family law attorney.
D.P., a physician, was married to R.P. for 25 years, divorcing in 2006. The divorce agreement required the husband to pay the wife $6,000 per month in alimony. As is not uncommon in alimony award situations, especially larger ones, the court ordered the husband to obtain a life insurance policy to secure the alimony award and to name R.P. as the policy’s death beneficiary. Without R.P.’s knowledge, the husband changed the beneficiary designation in 2011 to name Melinda (the woman who would become his third wife in 2013) as the beneficiary. R.P. knew nothing about this change until after D.P. died.
Three decades ago, there was a popular TV comedy featuring four senior women sharing a home here in sunny South Florida. The eldest occasionally tried to impart her “wisdom” by telling stories from her youth, urging her listeners to “picture it,” and then describing the setting. So, in that tradition… picture it: you’re in a courtroom in your divorce case –- on your own — facing the judge and your spouse and your spouse’s lawyer. Both you and the other side have made motions asking the judge to do certain things. While you’re in the hearing, the judge suggests to your spouse’s attorney what motions that lawyer should file. The judge also makes a suggestion that that attorney not file another motion that the lawyer was contemplating.
That would be pretty intimidating, would it not? You’re there on your own and your spouse has counsel but it is your spouse’s side that the judge seems to be helping out. Would you think that you have any recourse? The reality is that you do have options in a circumstance like that. One option to which you should definitely avail yourself is retaining legal counsel. Having a skilled South Florida family law attorney on your side can help level the playing field.
This scenario allegedly happened in a real-life case recently. A wife and a husband were in court in their divorce case disputing the wife’s alleged improper sale of certain assets contained in storage units. The husband had a lawyer; the wife didn’t. The judge in the case allegedly suggested that the husband’s lawyer file a motion to show cause and that, as part of that request, the judge “would be happy” to haul into court the third party to whom the wife allegedly sold the assets. The judge later allegedly offered an opinion that the husband’s lawyer should avoid filing a different motion the lawyer was considering.
Generally, the law gives judges significant discretion when it comes to the orders they hand down in family law cases, especially when it comes to division of assets and debts. The court can demand that a particular spouse pay a particular debt and can impose requirements regarding how to pay it, such as demanding that the marital home be sold–at least in most circumstances. However, Florida constitutional law creates some very strong protections for homestead property, and sometimes the homestead exemption protection can have an impact on a family law case. To make sure you’re not forced into selling your home when you don’t have to, be sure to retain an experienced Florida family law attorney.
As an example of a conflict between debt assignment in a divorce and the homestead exemption, there’s the recent case of S.A.S. and J.S. The pair were going through divorce in Broward County, and their divorce included issues that required the retention of a guardian ad litem. Guardians ad litem often become involved in divorce cases involving minor children if the case is especially litigious or there has been an allegation of child abuse or neglect.
In a family law case, a guardian ad litem is often a local attorney and is entitled to payment of fees for the service she provides. Many times, the guardian ad litem may be paid by the hour. The guardian ad litem’s fees are owed by the litigants, which means that this is one more marital expense that the court must decide who pays.
For many couples, the creation of mutual agreements can be a useful and healthy way to resolve some or all of the issues outstanding in a divorce. However, even the most well thought out settlement agreements can be undone, in whole or in part, by the intrusion of unexpected life-changing events. When that happens, one spouse may need to ask the court for an order modifying an obligation like alimony, and to make that modification retroactive. To ensure a truly equitable outcome, it is important to get that date of retroactivity right. To make sure your alimony outcome is a just one, you should be sure you have a skilled South Florida family law attorney on your side.
One couple facing this issue of retroactive modification of alimony was J.N. and C.N. The Palm Beach County couple worked out a marital settlement agreement that, among other things, said that the husband would pay the wife alimony of $2,750 per month in years one and two, and then gradually decline to $1,000 per month in year eight.
Two months after the spouses reached this agreement, in January 2016, the husband encountered an allegedly unexpected surprise: he lost his job. He went back to court and asked the judge reduce the amount of his alimony based upon this change. At that time, the court had not entered a final order of dissolution, which was not entered until nine months later. A month after the judge entered the order, in November 2016, the husband filed an amended motion, again asking for a reduction in alimony.
If you need a modification in the alimony you’re receiving, your case requires more than proof that you need more support and that your former spouse can afford to pay more in support. You need evidence that a substantial change in circumstances has taken place. That can be a key stumbling block for some litigants’ alimony modification cases because without the right kind of proof to establish this change, a judge cannot give you the modification you seek. To make sure you have the evidence required to get the support you need, be sure to put a knowledgeable South Florida family law on your side.
In seeking a modification of alimony, it may make good sense to provide the court with multiple possible changes in circumstances. Here’s an example: S.M. was a former wife from the Tampa Bay area who went to court seeking a modification of her alimony. The amount of alimony had originally been set in a “nominal alimony award” contained within the final judgment of dissolution in the couple’s case.
In S.M.’s situation, she had been receiving support from her daughter and her sister, but those two women ceased being able to continue that support. Those women’s inability to continue supporting her was a substantial change in circumstances, she argued. The ex-wife argued that there were additional changes, as well. Her insurance costs had gone up following the divorce. She possibly owed her sister certain sums for various expenses, and the ex-husband had begun negotiating with lenders on the property where the ex-wife was residing, which forced her to rent a new place to live.
When a court faces a question about the calculation of an alimony obligation, it generally looks at the requesting spouse’s need and the other spouse’s ability to pay. In many situations, that may involve just looking at the income and the expenses of each spouse. There are situations, though, where a court may be legally obliged to consider more than just the respective incomes of the two spouses. One circumstance where that’s the case occurs when one spouse is voluntarily unemployed or voluntarily underemployed. If you are involved in a case that includes issues of alimony and/or child support and your spouse is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed, then be sure you have the skill of an experienced South Florida family law attorney on your side.
J.M. and T.M.’s divorce case was one where alimony was one of the key issues in dispute. In the case, the husband sought to have income imputed to the wife. Intentionally avoiding work, or avoiding working at an income level commensurate with your education and professional experience, can have the impact of skewing the calculation of the proper amount of alimony. When the court decides that this “voluntary unemployment” or “voluntary underemployment” has happened, then the law allows the judge to do what’s called “imputing income” to the spouse who is voluntarily underemployed or unemployed.
In that process, the judge determines how much the voluntarily underemployed or unemployed spouse would be making if he/she were earning up to his/her reasonable capabilities, and then makes a determination about alimony based on that figure, not the spouse’s actual income. This is true whether the allegedly voluntarily underemployed or unemployed spouse is the one seeking alimony or is the one who may be ordered to pay alimony.