The laws of Florida provide clear guidance in most divorce scenarios. However, under certain circumstances, the parties’ agreement may not follow the status quo. In Taylor v. Lutz, an ex-wife sought back alimony payments plus attorneys’ fees. The evidence before the trial court indicated that the parties were married for approximately four and a half years. Upon the dissolution of their marriage, the parties agreed to a Marital Settlement Agreement (“MSA”) that provided for alimony payments from the former husband. The alimony provision in the MSA stated that the former husband would pay “Bridge-the-Gap alimony” in a non-modifiable amount of $500.00 per month for a total of three years.
Bridge-the-Gap alimony, as defined by Florida law, is designed to assist a party by providing support during the transition from being married to becoming single. Florida law further provides that Bridge-the-Gap alimony may be awarded for up to two years, and it automatically terminates upon the remarriage of the party receiving alimony payments.
The trial court found that the ex-husband made only two partial payments of $235 each. In fact, the trial court had entered a judgment against the former husband several years before, finding that he owed his ex-wife $5,197.97 in unpaid alimony and attorneys’ fees. However, the ex-husband failed to make any such payments.
Around that same time, the ex-wife remarried. Approximately a year later, she filed another motion to enforce the MSA with regard to alimony payments. At that point, the former husband objected and argued that his alimony obligations ceased upon his ex-wife’s remarriage. The trial court concurred, and held that the alimony arrangement terminated upon the ex-wife’s remarriage. She appealed the ruling.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals examined several tenets of well-established Florida statutory and case law. The appellate court first recognized that parties to a divorce are free to agree to terms and conditions beyond those that a trial court could impose. For example, a divorcing couple could agree for alimony to continue after the death of the party making payments, at which point the estate would be responsible for payments.
The appeals court also recognized the contractual nature of an MSA. When an agreement’s terms are clear and unambiguous, a court must give authority to the parties’ intentions. Finally, the court cited to legal precedents regarding the legal status of alimony payments. The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that alimony may be called one thing but have a different legal substance. In these cases, in accord with the case law, it is the substance that is controlling rather than the form.
After considering the aforementioned principles, the Court of Appeals held that the language in the parties’ MSA was unambiguous and did not state that alimony would cease upon remarriage. The language also stated that the alimony payments were non-modifiable. Accordingly, the appeals court held that the former husband’s legal obligation did not terminate upon his ex-wife’s remarriage. The Court of Appeals also considered attorneys’ fees and found that the trial court failed to calculate its award pursuant to applicable Florida law. In calculating attorneys’ fees, it is necessary to arrive at a ‘lodestar’ or reasonable number of hours spent times a reasonable hourly rate. Since the trial court failed to do so, the Court of Appeals reversed the ruling on both counts and remanded the case for proceedings consistent with its opinion.
The Southwest Florida family law lawyers at Lusk, Drasites & Tolisano are skilled in resolving a wide variety of family law issues. If you or someone you know is facing challenges regarding support payments in Naples, Cape Coral, or surrounding communities, our legal team can help. Contact us or call toll-free at (800) 238-7442 for a free confidential consultation.
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