The issue of cohabitation can be a tricky one for divorcing spouses in New Jersey. State law currently allows one former spouse to ask a court to terminate his or her obligation to pay alimony to the other spouse if that person cohabits with another person. In other words, the money may stop if the former spouse lives with a romantic partner in a relationship that’s similar to a marriage. Although that legal principle was recently criticized by two sitting members of the New Jersey Supreme Court, the state’s highest court nevertheless enforced an agreement between former spouses to stop alimony payments upon cohabitation.
When Husband and Wife divorced in 2006, they signed a property settlement agreement (PSA) resolving issues like how the former spouses would divide their assets. They also agreed that Husband would pay Wife more than $1,300 per week in alimony. The PSA stated that the payments would continue until either spouse died or Wife remarried or cohabitated with another person.
Husband asked a court to terminate his alimony obligation roughly two years later, arguing that Wife was now living with another man. Wife acknowledged that she was in a committed relationship with the man for 28 months leading up to a trial on the issue. But she also asserted – and the court agreed – that the relationship had since ended. As a result, the trial court suspended Husband’s alimony obligation during the length of the relationship. It allowed him to pay Wife half of the regular amount of the alimony payments until he recouped the money paid while she was cohabitating with the man.
Reversing the decision on appeal, a divided Supreme Court said the alimony payments should have been cut off permanently as soon as Wife moved in with the man. “Marital agreements, including PSAs that clearly and unequivocally provide for the termination of alimony upon cohabitation, are enforceable when the parties enter such agreements knowingly and voluntarily,” the Court said. “The record developed in this matter provides no basis to do anything other than to enforce the clear and unequivocal obligations undertaken by both parties to each other under the PSA.”
Two Justices disagreed with the decision. In a dissenting opinion, they argued that a settlement agreement should be interpreted to address the economic impact of a divorce on both spouses, “not contain senseless shackles that deprive a spouse of the right to seek love and companionship.” They also said that settlement agreements that include anti-cohabitation provisions should be considered void because they violate public policy. “An ex-husband should not be empowered through a property settlement agreement to threaten his ex-wife with the termination of her alimony if she cohabits with another person, when the living arrangement does not change her financial circumstances,” the two justices wrote in the dissent.
Still, the majority said it wasn’t up to the Court to rewrite an agreement knowingly entered into by two divorcing spouses. “When parties to a matrimonial settlement agreement have agreed to permit termination of alimony on remarriage or cohabitation, they have recognized that each are equivalent events,” the majority said. “When the facts support no conclusion other than that the relationship has all the hallmarks of a marriage, the lack of official recognition offers no principled basis to treat cohabitation differently from remarriage as an alimony-terminating event.” As a result, the Court remanded the case with instructions to terminate Husband’s alimony obligation.
The New Jersey alimony lawyers at Helfand & Associates have more than 100 years of combined experience representing clients in a wide range of divorce, child custody, and alimony cases. Our lawyers work diligently to ease the stress on clients in what can be a trying process by building the strongest possible cases for the people whom we represent.
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