Suffice it to say, the issue of cohabitation under the amended alimony statute has been a hot topic of late in New Jersey family law. With several recent notable seminars on the topic, and two recently issued Appellate Division decisions (one published and the other unpublished) addressing when the amended law applies, practitioners and potential litigants hungrily consume these new cases looking for any morsel of guidance on how the statutory language will work.
Back when the law originally passed, I wrote an article for the New Jersey Law Journal analyzing cohabitation law past, present and future. A year and a half later, I am not only unable to confirm how a trial judge would apply the new statute, but if the discussions from each of those recent seminars are any indication, different judges may and will likely apply the statute very differently. In other words, some trial judges may favor applying the pre-amendment legal analysis, some may strictly apply the new statutory language, and some may even implement some sort of combination of the two.
Thus, as a very strong introductory caveat – We have no idea how the new will be applied given what we have heard judges say about it, and the fact that there is no law to guide us. Now, with that being said…
Just to briefly refresh, what did the old law say? Well, cohabitation was described by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as:
- An “intimate,” “close and enduring” relationship that requires “more than a common residence” or mere sexual liaison. The relationship “bears the generic character of a family unit as a relatively permanent household,” is “serious and lasting,” and reflects the “stability, permanency and mutual interdependence” of a single household.
- It involves conduct whereby “the couple has undertaken duties and privileges that are commonly associated with marriage.”
Indicia may include, but is not limited to, long-term intimate or romantic involvement; living together, intertwined finances such as joint bank accounts, shared living expenses and household chores, and recognition of the relationship in the couple’s social and family circle. The so-called “economic benefits” test would come into play after the payor made an initial showing of cohabitation, at which time the court would determine if the third party contributed to the dependent spouse’s support, or if the third party resided in the dependent spouse’s home without contributing anything to household expenses.
Now what does the new law have to say? The law defines cohabitation as involving a “mutually supportive, intimate personal relationship in which a couple has undertaken duties and privileges that are commonly associated with marriage or civil union but does not necessarily maintain a single common household.” A trial judge presented with a cohabitation allegation is required to consider: (1) Intertwined finances such as joint bank accounts and other joint holdings or liabilities; (2) Sharing or joint responsibility for living expenses; (3) Recognition of the relationship in the couple’s social and family circle; (4) Living together, the frequency of contact, the duration of the relationship, and other indicia of a mutually supportive intimate personal relationship; (5) Sharing household chores; (6) Whether the recipient of alimony has received an enforceable promise of support from another person within the meaning of subsection h. of R.S. 25:1-5; and – of course, since this is family law that we are dealing with – (7) All other relevant evidence. So we now know that, at the very least – under the amended law – cohabitation does not require the couple to live together on a full time basis, which was unresolved pre-amendment.
Also to clarify what I indicated earlier, some trial judges have suggested that because the family part is one tasked with imparting an equitable result, they may still apply the economic benefits test and potentially modify – rather than suspend or terminate as the statute says – an existing alimony obligation. Notably, as I wrote for the Law Journal, those amended portions of the law addressing an alimony change in the event of the payer’s retirement or down income use the word modify as a possible option, but that word is nowhere to be found in the cohabitation section. Was that deliberate, favoring the notion that the law is more payor friendly, or was it unintentional and not meant to wipe away the old law? We do not yet know the answer. Also notable is how a recent case addressing the retirement language section of the amended statute relied upon statutory interpretation and construction, rather than a broader interpretation that perhaps some practitioners were expecting. This does not mean, however, that the cohabitation portion of the statute will be similarly analyzed and applied.
Other trial judges have indicated that the statute requires a suspension or termination, although a separate question exists as to when a suspension would occur. Perhaps as a sign of rulings to come or, perhaps, also inadvertently, the Appellate Division in one of those two cases I mentioned above indicated that alimony “shall” terminate upon cohabitation by the payee. This, however, was neither an issue or holding in the case, and even the statute uses the word “may” rather than “shall.” Also, when should a so-called suspension of alimony even occur? Should it only occur during a cohabitation proceeding and potentially be reinstated if cohabitation is ultimately unproven? Should it occur as a final result and be subject to reinstatement if the cohabitation ends? The answers are unknown at this point.
What about making the initial cohabitation showing? As is true with any case, judges are going to look at the same set of facts differently from each other. For instance, while one judge may find it sufficient for the payor to establish that the couple has been living together at least four days per week for a month, another judge may want more. While one judge may deem sufficient intertwined finances via a single joint bank account and the couple holding themselves out as in a relationship on occasion, another judge may disagree. All judges present at the seminars seem to agree, however, that the more information and evidence of cohabitation to be considered in the initial filing, the better. We even discussed a good old fashioned garbage inspection, where you never know what kind of gems may turn up in a payee’s trash bin – in other words, one payee’s trash may be one payor’s Exhibit A to a Certification.
Thus, no matter how the law is to apply once cohabitation is established (suspension, terminate or modify), the process by which a payor spouse is to gather information for a motion to “address” alimony due to cohabitation seems to remain the same. Private investigators will often still be a potentially key part of the puzzle, and, to the extent the couple somehow cannot manage to keep themselves from discussing the relationship on social media, such evidence is often, but not always, the equivalent of the goose that laid the golden egg – in other words, the online version of the garbage can.
It was those recent seminars that really brought back to the forefront for me how much has yet to be determined under the amended law and, perhaps more importantly, how each case leaves unanswered the question of what gets a moving party passed that first litigation hurdle, and what a payee spouse can do to successfully fend it off. For both sides, the picture remains cloudy in some ways and crystal clear in others, and that is without any of the sort of guidance that we have recently seen with the retirement portion of the amended law. We will all continue to stay tuned as to what this portion of the new law can do once tested.
*Photo courtesy of mondspeer (Google free images).