If there is cohabitation by an ex-spouse who receives alimony, the ex-spouse is at risk not only to a potential decrease in alimony but also at risk for a total termination of alimony.  On March 7, 2013, the New Jersey Appellate Division released the published decision of Reese v. Weis upholding a trial court’s termination of permanent alimony as a result of cohabitation.

As we have blogged in the past, cohabitation is considered a change of circumstances that warrants review of alimony.  New Jersey Courts have described “cohabitation” as involving an “intimate” “close and enduring” relationship “requiring more than a common residence”  whereby the “couple has undertaken duties and privileges that are commonly associated with marriage”.

Once cohabitation is established, the dependent ex-spouse has the burden of proving that he or she continues to be dependent upon the alimony being paid regardless of the cohabitation.   When a dependent ex-spouse economically benefits from the cohabitation, his or her support may be reduced or terminated.  A reduction is appropriate where the dependent ex-spouse can prove that he or she still has some need to the support taking into consideration the economic benefit received from the cohabitation. 

What triggers a reduction versus termination?  In the 46 page Reese decision, the Court concluded that the lower Court’s termination of the dependent ex-spouse’s alimony as a result of cohabitation was appropriate for the following reasons.

First and most importantly, the dependent ex-spouse did not prove a continued need for support.  The dependent ex-spouse asserted that her partner did not subsidize any of her expenses and that her expenses and those of the parties’ children were paid solely by her.  In the alternative, she argued that if the Court found that the partner was providing a financial benefit to her, such benefit did not equate to a total elimination of support.  Unfortunately for the dependent ex-spouse, during the trial, she could not articulate or provide evidence as to her actual need for continued support and how the cohabitation did not impact or only minimally impact  her financial needs. 

Second, the partner provided a direct economic benefit to the dependent ex-spouse by directly paying a significant amount towards the dependent ex-spouse and the parties’ children’s expenses (such as housing, food, clothing, transportation, etc.).

Third, the partner provided indirect economic benefits to the dependent ex-spouse including gifts and luxury vacations which enhanced the dependent ex-spouse’s lifestyle.  It was virtually impossible for the trial court to discern the household financial contributions by the dependent ex-spouse and by the partner because of their intertwined finances.

Fourth, the total years that the dependent ex-spouse and the partner resided together exceeded the term of her marriage to her ex-husband who was paying alimony and child support in excess of $235,000 per year.  In short, the partner not only provided direct and indirect economic benefits to the dependent ex-spouse but elevated her lifestyle for a period longer than the parties enjoyed their marital lifestyle.

The majority of the Reese opinion centered on the cohabitation issues.  However, the Court also noted that despite the fact that the application to terminate support was filed after there had been ten years of open cohabitation, the ex-husband was not precluded from filing the application after all those years.

The Reese decision shows that when a dependent ex-spouse chooses to reside with a partner, modification of alimony payments are not solely based upon the partner’s dollar for dollar contributions to the relationship but the enhancements to the standard of living of the dependent ex-spouse by the partner and the length of the cohabitation versus the length of the marriage to the party paying alimony also weigh into the Court’s analysis.