'Second wives' activist fights lifelong alimony
By Stacy Teicher Khadaroo
Growing movement seeks uniformity --- and justice
ORT LAUDERDALE (MCT) Debbie Leff Israel believes in sharing but not to the point of turning over part of her paycheck to her fiance's former wife.
That's why the Weston, Fla., woman says she has held off marrying her beloved: She doesn't want to financially support his ex-wife.
"The current Florida laws stand in the way of me being happily married," she wrote on the Florida Alimony Reform website to explain why she has become an activist fighting permanent alimony what her fiance has been ordered to pay, even in his retirement.
Israel, who teaches math at Broward College, helped start the Florida Second Wives Club as a way to fight what she considers the unfairness of judges' giving lifetime alimony to some first wives and then a second wife's income sometimes being used to support the first.
"Instead of enjoying a happy marriage," she recently wrote on floridaalimonyreform.com, "I feel sad and frustrated. I am a mathematics professor, so I suppose my brain is wired for balance. I do not see balance in a situation where laws that are supposedly intended to help families are actually preventing a new, happy family from fully and legally materializing."
Under Florida law, a judge can look at the finances of the paying ex, usually a former husband, if his ex-wife requests more alimony. If he has fewer expenses because a new spouse is helping pay, then a judge can rule he can pay more alimony if the ex-wife's request for more money is justified, Fort Lauderdale family law attorney Barry Finkel said.
"That doesn't seem fair to me," Israel said.
She has become a leader in Florida Alimony Reform, which largely had been made up of men paying support to ex-wives for the rest of their lives unless the women remarry. The group unsuccessfully tried to get a bill to end permanent alimony passed during the last legislative session, and is now planning to introduce a new one when the Legislature meets next year.
"Debbie has been instrumental in getting women to join the alimony-reform movement," said FAR volunteer Hector Torres, of Pembroke Pines, who testified earlier this year before a state legislative committee in support of alimony reforms. "She is very dedicated to the cause and has done a terrific job in educating women about the unfairness (to both men and women) of the current laws."
Israel has even taped videos to place on YouTube of second wives who feel the current state law gives preferential treatment to first wives, Torres said.
Today, most divorces in the United States still involve some sort of alimony, but often it's awarded for a set time to help a spouse retrain for work and become self-supporting, according to those who work in family law practices. Statistics on alimony are hard to get: the Tallahassee-based Office of the State Courts Administrator keeps statistics on child support but not alimony.
"I think it's safe to say it's a small minority of people and a small minority of cases," said South Florida lawyer David Manz, immediate past chairman of the Florida Bar family-law section.
Finkel said Florida law has become fairer with reforms that took effect last summer, requiring judges to find "documented exceptional circumstances" for a spouse to get permanent alimony if the marriage lasted seven years or less and "clear and convincing evidence" for permanent alimony for spouses in longer marriages of up to 17 years. Judges must also rule that no other form of alimony would be "fair and reasonable" in giving permanent alimony.
Florida legislators have been concerned about protecting older homemakers, who are mostly women and have been raising families rather than working for pay. Unless they get alimony, they often have no income.
But what can be unfair is that judges' rulings widely vary in divorce cases with similar situations, Finkel said. "There are inconsistencies in rulings," he said.
Israel and other members of the alimony reform movement want more uniformity and justice.
Permanent alimony sometimes hurts the very people it's supposed to protect by giving them a lifetime of income without their needing to try to succeed in a new career, Israel said.
She opted not to get permanent alimony when she divorced, but rather agreed to a set time. It was healthier, Israel said. Otherwise, "a person can be tethered until death" to an ex-spouse, she said.
"I believe permanent alimony permanently attaches you," Israel said.
Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.