Florida's Bridge-the-Gap Alimony
Florida Divorce Courts have broad discretion in awarding alimony to either party. To help guide the Court in making (or not making) an alimony award, the legislature has created some rudimentary categories of alimony, as well as some restrictions on the length of time alimony will be paid, and the monthly amount of alimony relative to the payor’s income.
What is Bridge-the-Gap Alimony?
As with most statutes that govern family law courts, the alimony statute is subject to interpretation, and serves more as a general suggestion than a true “guideline”. This creates uncertainty as to a party’s likely alimony obligation or award, and increases litigation in this area. The legislature has been actively working on a new, streamlined alimony bill, but until that bill is passed into law, couples that divorce in Florida are subject to the current statute.
This article will focus on one particular type of alimony: “Bridge-the-gap”. Defined by Florida Statute 61.08 (as are all other forms of alimony) Subsection (5) of 61.08 creates the concept of Bridge-the-gap alimony, and defines its purpose and limits its duration.
The statutory text is as follows:
“(5) Bridge-the-gap alimony may be awarded to assist a party by providing support to allow the party to make a transition from being married to being single. Bridge-the-gap alimony is designed to assist a party with legitimate identifiable short-term needs, and the length of an award may not exceed 2 years. An award of bridge-the-gap alimony terminates upon the death of either party or upon the remarriage of the party receiving alimony. An award of bridge-the-gap alimony shall not be modifiable in amount or duration.”
Bridge-the-Gap Alimony is Temporary
Spouses who receive bridge-the-gap alimony are presumed by the court to be capable of self-support. This concept was spelled out in the cases of Wofford v. Wofford, 20 So. 3d 470 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 4th Dist. 2009) and Yitzhari v. Yitzhari 906 So.2d 1250 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 3rd Dist. 2005), with the latter case stating:
“Bridge-the-gap alimony serves to assist a spouse already capable of self-support during the transition from being married to being single”
This is a huge departure from the remainder of the types of alimony available to a spouse in a Florida Divorce. This has nothing to do with rehabilitating a spouse, getting him or her back into the workforce, or otherwise providing for a lifestyle to which they have grown accustomed. In fact, the Courts have found that it is error to mix the purpose of bridge-the-gap alimony with that of rehabilitative alimony.
Bridge-the-gap alimony is only alimony where the receiving spouse is self-sufficient, that is, able to support him or herself to the standard of living during the marriage without assistance from the other spouse. Bridge-the-gap alimony is solely a short-term period of assistance to ease the transition from married to single life.
An often overlooked portion of F.S. §61.08(5) is the requirement that the needs be “legitimate and identifiable” and “short-term”. Many spouses requesting alimony come to the court with a general request for bridge-the-gap alimony without any specific description of why they need the support. This can be catastrophic for the spouse asking for support, or a wonderful opportunity for the paying spouse. If the spouse fails to present appropriate evidence to the court as to “legitimate identifiable short-term needs”, their request for bridge-the-gap alimony may fail, leaving them to fall back onto other, less likely types of alimony.
Finding a Standard of Living
Further, paying spouses will happily note that the maximum duration of bridge-the-gap alimony is two years. Following the logic of the preceding statutory language, this seems overlong, but it is conceivable that some “temporary, short-term” expenses may justify that length of payment.
A note of caution for paying spouses: Bridge-the-gap alimony creates a burden to show that the spouse is capable of providing for him or herself up to the standard of living of the parties during the marriage.
This is not always easy to do, as most parties disagree on their standard of living. The spouse who is seeking the alimony will often attempt to exaggerate the standard of living in an attempt to show an expensive, luxurious lifestyle, which clearly be beyond the reach of their earning capacity.
The paying spouse will take the opposite path, showing a modest lifestyle, which can easily be afforded by the receiving spouse. Following the presentation of evidence on the parties’ lifestyles, the litigation often involves a request for permission to have the court order a “vocational evaluation” of the spouse who is requesting the support.
A vocational evaluation is when the spouse asking for alimony is required to cooperate with a “vocational expert” to determine their work history, education, and employability for the purpose of presenting evidence later to the Court that the person is (or is not) able to make a certain income level within the community.
Florida’s Bridge-the-Gap Alimony Law
The last sentence in F.S. §61.08(5) defines the non-modifiable characteristic of Florida’s bridge-the-gap alimony law. Given the high standard for presenting specific needs, and the short duration of any bridge-the-gap payments, this is logical, as the time, and legal fees associated with modifying a bridge-the-gap alimony award would likely outweigh the costs of paying the award.
The sole way to modify (or more accurately to terminate) Florida bridge-the-gap alimony is if the receiving spouse remarries. Without taking too cynical of a view, it is common to see remarriages occurring 25 months after the entry of a bridge-the-gap alimony award.
Florida’s alimony laws are complex. The legislature is, as discussed above, working aggressively to enact a new law which provides parties with alimony guidelines, similar to those already in place for child support. This would alleviate some of the “crystal ball gazing” that is required of Sarasota Divorce Attorneys in advising their clients as to their likely alimony awards or obligations.