By Michael E. Miller
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Tailpipe has been through the divorce mill, and this battered cylinder still bears the scars. How do you assign numerical value (usually dollars and cents) to all of the shared "property" of what might have been a long, complicated affiliation? It's a ticklish process. Like, who gets the Picasso prints or that LeRoy Neiman picture of Mark McGwire? How about the old T-Bird moldering in the garage? How much for child support? How about, ugh, alimony?
Here's where you really start to draw blood. By the time you get to court, alimony is looking a lot like pornography. Community standards set the bar for acceptability. Just as a board of standards must rule on how naked the actors have to get before a movie gets an X rating, a judge must determine when enough is enough for a grasping ex-wife.
"You know it when you see it," says one top Florida family law attorney, Cynthia Greene of Greene, Smith, McMillian in Miami. "It's a very difficult area to legislate."
Both porn standards and post-marriage payments have to be judged on a case-by-case basis. Neither is easily regulated. In Florida, anyway, that doesn't stop lawmakers from trying. Last year, the Legislature passed a law allowing the state's trial-court judges to stop or reduce a former spouse's alimony obligation when his or her former life partner shacks up with a new lover. Sounds reasonable. Doable, even.
But not so fast.
Lawmakers were motivated partly because they were outraged about a particularly outrageous case. Beth Rice was collecting $5,000 a month in alimony from her ex-husband when the Tampa Bay woman and her boyfriend flew to Las Vegas along with 50 of their closest friends to hold a traditional Jewish wedding ceremony under a chuppah.
"You can imagine the frustration of somebody who's paying alimony to someone who's going out wearing wedding rings with someone else," Greene says. "And why aren't you taking that final step? Because they want the money."
In fact, there was a video of the Las Vegas ceremony, and there were photographs. But Rice never signed a marriage license. She wasn't ready to relinquish her monthly five G's.
A Hillsborough County judge agreed with Rice and refused to stop the alimony. Even a state appeals court sided with her saying its decision was based on the fact that she wasn't legally married to the new guy. Owee.
Then Michael Rice, brandishing the new law, went back to court. Inexplicably, he lost again (maybe because the judge assumed that a higher court would eventually establish new state parameters for alimony). Before Michael Rice could take it to the state Supreme Court, though, the slippery Beth Rice formalized her nuptials.
This brings the 'Pipe to the case of a Boca Raton couple. Earlier this month, the Fourth District Court of Appeal said tax lawyer and millionaire Craig Donoffshould have to pay his ex-wife who's been living with an even wealthier man for the past decade a nominal amount.
Craig and Mitzi Donoff were divorced in 1995 after 15 years of marriage and two kids. Their legal skirmishes have been going on now for longer than they were married and have already resulted in two other precedent-setting appellate opinions. The latest installment in Donoff v. Donoffoffers guidance on how to calculate the amount of alimony when there's an expensive shack-up in the picture. Judge Gary M. Farmer, writing for the court, said Palm Beach Circuit Judge William J. Berger was right when he determined that Mitzi and the man who gave her a $100,000 "promise ring" were cohabiting in an economically supportive manner. But, Farmer said, Berger was wrong to set Mitzi's reduced monthly alimony payment at $6,600. Way too much, Farmer opined. How about a buck a month?
For the record, Mitzi Donoff and Gary Oreman own a $3 million Boca home together, hold themselves out to be husband and wife both publicly and on bank records and "have for years had a relationship between them that provides economic support equivalent to a marriage."
Mitzi's argument for continued support from her ex is a masterpiece of misdirection. She had her beau Oreman go to court to testify that, hey, he could end things with Mitzi at any moment so, it'd be much better if Craig kept paying Mitzi nearly $100,000 a year. Think of what might happen. There are no guarantees in this troubled world of ours. Oreman said that he has been fighting over money with his ex-wife in the Louisiana courts and that the experience has left a sour taste in his mouth about marriage.
There's an uncanny logic to the argument. The 'Pipe's getting ready to send his lady some flowers with a card that says: "Love ya, baby, 'til circumstances intervene."
Ah, autumn. Dipping thermometers. Falling leaves. Forests ablaze with autumnal colors before the snow arrives.
Er, wait a minute. Falling leaves? Maybe falling palm fronds. How about the chug of arriving RVs from the North or the ping of tennis balls hitting the court?
But subtle differences somehow escape the 'Pipe's local Starbucks. There was something new on the menu last week. It was the maple macchiato. The 'Pipe was dubious. The caramel macchiato, the inspiration for the new tree-sap adaptation, is sweet enough. And at $5, the maple version still isn't breakfast though it smells that way.