Alimony and Cohabitation: The Evolutionary Process Continues
May 23, 2016 | Written by: | Share
Several years ago, my partner, Diana Fredericks, Esq., and I co-authored an article for the New Jersey Family Lawyer in which we discussed the impact on an alimony obligation when the recipient former spouse cohabits with a third party romantic partner. That effort was triggered by a then-recent Appellate Division reported opinion in which the Court upheld a trial court decision to terminate a former wife's alimony rights based on her long-term cohabiting relationship, despite the fact that the underlying settlement agreement did not call for a termination of alimony upon cohabitation. Since that time, this legal issue has continued to evolve at both the legislative and judicial levels.
In September 2014, the Governor signed an amendment to the New Jersey alimony statute. While there were several revisions to the law, one addressed the impact of cohabitation and simply declared the right of a Judge to terminate or suspend alimony upon cohabitation. Cohabitation is also defined, or at least its "symptoms" are described, within the body of the statute. Notably, the statute specifically provides its terms are not to be retroactively applied. In other words, agreements between parties divorced prior to September 2014 are governed by prior law, which is detailed in the aforementioned article.
A few weeks ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided the case of Quinn v. Quinn. The Quinns married in 1983 and divorced in 2006. Therefore, their case was not affected by the new statute. The husband agreed to pay "permanent" alimony in excess of $68,700 per year. Their agreement provided alimony would terminate if the wife cohabited. In August 2007, the wife met a man with whom she began residing in early 2008. On that basis, the husband filed an application to terminate alimony in 2010. A trial was conducted. During the trial, the man with whom the wife had been cohabiting moved out and, apparently, the relationship ended. The trial Judge concluded that the wife had been cohabiting. However, for equitable public policy reasons, the Judge declined to terminate alimony due to the fact the relationship had ended and the former wife was still very much financially dependent upon her husband of 23 years. Instead, the Judge suspended alimony for the period of cohabitation and ordered the former wife to reimburse her former husband the overpayment as well as substantial legal fees.
On appeal, the Appellate Division upheld that decision. However, the Supreme Court of New Jersey, in a 4-2 decision, reversed the lower courts and terminated the alimony obligation. Despite the equities of the situation favoring the wife, the court instead prioritized the sanctity of the contract between the parties. Significant was the fact that the 2006 agreement was negotiated at arms' length with both parties represented by legal counsel.
Thus, a dependent spouse needs to think long and hard before ever agreeing to an automatic termination of alimony upon cohabitation.
If you have any questions about the Quinn decision or if you know of a case where alimony is being paid and cohabitation may be occurring, please feel free to contact the attorneys at Gebhardt & Kiefer, PC for guidance.
William W. Goodwin, Jr., Esq. is certified by the NJ Supreme Court as a Matrimonial Attorney. He is also qualified as a Mediator in the field of Family Law under the New Jersey Court rules, and he is trained in Collaborative Divorce. Contact Mr. Goodwin at 908-735-5161 or via email.