The Florida Court of Appeal for the 3rd District of Florida (the appeals District that covers Dade and Monroe Counties) recently filed a significant opinion dealing with what has to happen for a court to “reserve” jurisdiction to award alimony, Hill v. Hill, 36 Fla. L. Weekly D 475 (Fla. 3rd DCA, March, 2, 2011). The opinion isn’t final yet – one of the parties has filed a Motion for a Rehearing – i.e. a request for the appellate court to hear the case again and reconsider its opinion. I’ll include in a future post more about the different courts in Florida, and the appeals process.
Reserving jurisdiction regarding alimony means the court is not awarding alimony at the time of the divorce, but is saying it will consider awarding alimony in the future. This is allowed under Florida law, for example, when one spouse needs alimony at the time of the divorce, but the other spouse does not have the ability to pay. Reserving jurisdiction is important, because if the court doesn’t award alimony at the time of the divorce, and jurisdiction is not properly reserved or retained, alimony is gone forever, which is what has happened so far for the Wife in the Hill case.
In this case, the trial court’s final divorce judgment in 1990 reserved jurisdiction to determine alimony in the future, when it was expected that the Husband’s income would increase when he started to receive his retirement pension. The Wife returned to Court in 2006 after the Husband retired and began receiving his pension, received an award of alimony in 2008, and the Husband appealed. Basically, the appeals court ruled the trial court’s simply stating in it’s opinion that it was reserving jurisdiction was not sufficient.
Although the formulation of what is required to properly reserve jurisdiction is stated a little differently in different parts of the appellate opinion, the opinion concludes with indicating that the trial court was required to have made a determination in 1990 regarding the Wife’s need for and entitlement to alimony, or to at least have awarded “nominal” alimony (e.g. $1 per month), and also to have set out some appropriate duration for how long it was reserving jurisdiction. The appellate court ruled that the trial court in 1990 simply stated that it was reserving jurisdiction without making any of the required findings or determinations, and therefore was not permitted in 2008 to award alimony – i.e. the attempted reservation of jurisdiction in 1990 was not effective because it didn’t follow the rules. (A trial court makes a determination or “findings” by including in it’s Order written statements of fact, e.g. “The Court finds ……”)
The “dissenting” opinion in the case saw things much differently than the majority. I’ll describe that in Part II of this post, as well as the implications, or moral of the story for spouses going through a divorce now. (There were three judges on the appeals “panel” in this case. One Judge wrote the official opinion of the court, and another wrote a concurring opinion that agrees with the ruling of the case – i.e. that the Wife could not receive alimony now, and added some additional or different reasoning than the primary opinion. The third Judge in this case wrote a dissenting opinion that disagrees with the ruling of the other two judges. The two judges who agreed with a result together make up the “majority” (2 out of 3) decision of the court).