NJ has a long-standing policy of terminating alimony when the recipient spouse remarries.  But what happens when a recipient does not remarry but cohabits with another person in a romantic relationship?  And what happens if that cohabitation relationship ends?  The NJ Supreme Court recently addressed such a scenario in Quinn v. Quinn (A-5-14).

Cathleen and David Quinn married in 1983 and divorced in 2006.  At the time of divorce, the Husband was earning around $209,000 and the Wife $21,500.  As part of the divorce, they voluntarily entered into a Property Settlement Agreement (PSA) that provided for $2643 in alimony bi-weekly (with an automatic annual inflation escalator) to the Wife.  The PSA stated that alimony would terminate upon “the Wife’s death, the Husband’s death, the Wife’s remarriage, or the Wife’s cohabitation, per case or statutory law, whichever shall first occur.”

In March 2010, the Husband filed a motion to terminate alimony since the Wife was cohabitating with another man from January 2008 to April 2010.  The trial court determined that a cohabitation relationship existed and suspended — but not terminated — the alimony during the time period of cohabitation.  The court also awarded the Husband his legal fees and costs of $145,000.  The suspended alimony and costs were offset against future alimony payments.  The Husband appealed.

In a split decision, the NJ Supreme Court upheld the PSA and ordered termination of alimony rather than a suspension as the trial court ordered.  The court found:

  • There is a strong public policy supporting the settlement of matrimonial matters and courts should avoid disturbing such settlements.
  • When the intent of the parties is plain and the language is clear and unambiguous, a court must enforce the agreement as written, unless doing so would lead to an absurd result.  A court should hold a hearing if the language is unclear or ambiguous.
  • An agreement that resolves a matrimonial dispute is no less a contract than an agreement to resolve a business dispute, although the law grants particular leniency to agreements made in the domestic arena and vests judges with greater discretion when interpreting such agreements.
  • Agreements between separated spouses executed voluntarily and understandingly for the purpose of settling the issue of alimony are specifically enforceable, but only to the extent that they are just and equitable.
  • New Jersey has a longstanding policy of terminating alimony permanently when the recipient spouse remarries.  Alimony that has been terminated due to remarriage is not revived if the remarriage ends.
  • Unlike remarriage, cohabitation does not terminate alimony in all instances. In the absence of an agreement that permits the obligor to cease payment of alimony, this Court has permitted a modification of alimony, including cessation thereof, in the event of post-divorce cohabitation only if one cohabitant supports or subsidizes the other under circumstances sufficient to entitle the supporting spouse to relief. In other words, this would constitute a change in circumstances.
  • The trial court findings in this case fully demonstrated that the Wife was engaged in the type of relationship that constitutes cohabitation as contemplated by Konzelman v. Konzelman, 158 N.J. 185 (1999).  (more on Konzelman below)
  • Cessation of cohabitation does not warrant departure from the agreed terms of the PSA.
  • In this case, the court ordered the termination of alimony and awarded the attorneys fees to Husband.  Thus, the Wife will owe the Husband approximately $315,000 between the alimony paid during the cohabitation and attorneys fees and costs.  As the dissent noted, the Wife still only makes about $20,000 per year.

Konzelman is a case that better defines cohabitation (citations removed):

A mere romantic, casual or social relationship is not sufficient to justify the enforcement of a settlement agreement provision terminating alimony. Such an agreement must be predicated on a relationship of cohabitation that can be shown to have stability, permanency and mutual interdependence. The Appellate Division expressed that standard by defining cohabitation as a domestic relationship whereby two unmarried adults live as husband and wife. Cohabitation is not defined or measured solely or even essentially by “sex” or even by gender, as implied by the dissent. The ordinary understanding of cohabitation is based on those factors that make the relationship close and enduring and requires more than a common residence, although that is an important factor. Cohabitation involves an intimate relationship in which the couple has undertaken duties and privileges that are commonly associated with  marriage. These can include, but are not limited to, living together, intertwined finances such as joint bank accounts, sharing living expenses and household chores, and recognition of the relationship in the couple’s social and family circle.

What are the takeaways here?

  • Courts will uphold agreements, so understand what you are agreeing to and the consequences of that agreement.
  • Cohabitation can modify or terminate alimony.  Cohabitation is a change in circumstance which can warrant a petition to the court to change alimony.
  • Legal fees can accrue quickly and in an equitable court, such fees can be shifted to the “losing” party if the court determines that a party misleads the court on factual issues.

More than 95% of divorces result from a settlement between the parties.  If you want to get to a settlement less expensively and more quickly, consider mediation.  If you have questions about mediation, please contact me.