After the long and often arduous divorce process, most people hope to put the past behind them as they begin to chart a new course for their lives. However, certain components of your final divorce decree can follow you into the future, requiring modification or termination as the circumstances of your life and your former spouse’s change. Alimony is a prime example of one such issue, with the potential to evolve over time. When New Jersey enacted the Alimony Reform Act of 2014, lawmakers included a provision that allows cohabitation to serve as grounds for the termination of alimony and spousal support payments. In other words, if you and your former spouse have an alimony arrangement, the payer may have grounds to terminate these payments if the recipient is found to be cohabitating with someone else. These cases, however, are by no means cut and dry. In fact, they are highly nuanced, highly variable, and many involve questions that New Jersey courts are just beginning to answer. This month, New Jersey courts decided several significant cases involving cohabitation and its collateral effects on alimony termination and modification. One of these, thoroughly examined below, will spell significant implications for future cases dealing with similar issues.
Can the Court Suspend Alimony During a Period of Cohabitation?
The case of Quinn v. Quinn dealt with a fundamental question: can alimony be suspended during the period of time that the alimony recipient is cohabitating with another person? The background of this case is as follows: Ms. Quinn cohabitated with a man from January 2008 to April 2010. During this period, the court suspended the alimony payments that she was receiving previously. In 2010, when Ms. Quinn was no longer living with her boyfriend, the court ruled that Mr. Quinn must resume making alimony payments. When the case was taken up on appeal, the Appellate Court upheld the trial court’s decision requiring Mr. Quinn to resume paying alimony.
Then, the case was brought to the New Jersey Supreme Court, at which time everything changed. In its decision, the Supreme Court referred directly to the marital settlement agreement that the Quinn’s had reached, which stated unequivocally that alimony payments would be terminated if the spouse receiving alimony cohabited with another. Ms. Quinn had repeatedly repudiated the idea that she was in a cohabitating relationship. She cited the fact that she did not live with her boyfriend full-time, but the court found otherwise, stating that Ms. Quinn’s boyfriend had been living in her home for over two years, even though he maintained his own residence. He also used Ms. Quinn’s address as his own, made phone calls from her home, and was consistently at the home even when she was not present. Lastly, the court found that Ms. Quinn’s relationship with her boyfriend was openly recognized by their “family and social circle” as a partnership.
Should Alimony be Suspended or Terminated if Cohabitation Ends?
The trial court, the Appellate Court, and the Supreme Court all agreed that Ms. Quinn had cohabitated with her boyfriend. Their disagreement hinged upon the application of the Quinn’s marital settlement agreement, specifically, whether or not alimony should be suspended or terminated permanently. Ultimately, the Supreme Court applied the clause in the marital settlement agreement, stating:
“In sum, we reiterate today that an agreement to terminate alimony upon cohabitation entered by fully informed parties, represented by independent counsel, and without any evidence of overreaching, fraud, or coercion is enforceable. It is irrelevant that the cohabitation ceased during trial when that relationship had existed for a considerable period of time.”
Notably, the Quinn’s marital settlement agreement was reached prior to the Alimony Reform Act of 2014, which allows for the suspension or termination of alimony payments in the event of cohabitation. Because the Act was not in effect when the marital settlement agreement was reached, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that only the language in the marital settlement agreement applied in this case.
Overall, this case is further evidence of the many intricacies involved in alimony and cohabitation matters. With New Jersey’s broad and somewhat ambiguous definition of cohabitation, it is inevitable that the courts will continue to refine their stances regarding these variables in the years to come. If you are grappling with divorce-related issues involving alimony and cohabitation, contact the law offices of Townsend, Tomaio & Newmark at 201-397-1750 today. One of our knowledgeable New Jersey family lawyers will be happy to answer all of your questions with a cost-free consultation.