Demonstrating yet again that cohabitation cases are almost always a creature of their specific facts and circumstances, the Appellate Division in the recently unpublished, Salvatore v. Salvatore, reversed a trial court’s decision denying a payor former husband’s motion to terminate his alimony obligation based on his payee former wife’s cohabitation in a manner defined by the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA).
Here are the facts that you need to know:
- The parties entered into a settlement agreement and were divorced in early 2011.
- As to alimony, the agreement provided that the payer’s alimony obligation would terminate upon payee’s remarriage, payer’s 66th birthday, or either party’s death. As to cohabitation, the agreement provided that payee’s “cohabitation with an unrelated adult in a relationship tantamount to marriage [would] be a re-evaluation event”.
- In an outright rarity in cohabitation matters, which often involve payee spouses concealing the cohabitation from the payor spouse so as to preserve the support obligation, here the payee advised the payor of her planned cohabitation.
- Even more rare is that the parties then entered into an addendum to the MSA, wherein: (1) they agreed to the cohabitation; (2) recognized they were “without sufficient knowledge to determine whether the cohabitation [would] be temporary or permanent”; (3) reduced monthly alimony payments by $850 “during the period of cohabitation”; and (4) provided that, “[b]ecause the [p]arties cannot determine the permanency of the cohabitation,” alimony would be reinstated “at the full amount in the [MSA] . . . for the remainder of the term” if the cohabitation terminated.
- Approximately six years later, the payor filed a motion to terminate his alimony based on the payee’s continued cohabitation. The trial judge denied the motion, finding that the cohabitation was admitted to at the time of the addendum and, as a result, its continued existence – in and of itself – was not a change in circumstances. Payor appealed.
Reversing the trial court, the Appellate Division held that the trial judge:
- “misapprehended that the change of circumstances involved only defendant’s cohabitation, failing to consider the terms of the MSA that provided cohabitation ‘in a relationship tantamount to marriage’ triggered the ‘re-evaluation event.'”
- erred in considering the payer’s failure to allege a financial change in circumstance.
- held that financial changes were “of no moment” when considering the MSA language at issue.
In so doing, the Appellate Court reiterated seminal pre-2014 statute case law mandating that the “economic needs” of the payee spouse need not be considered so long as the cohabitation provision meriting an alimony modification is fair.
Addressing the subject addendum to the MSA – really the unique feature of this particular cohabitation case – the Appellate Division found that the trial court:
- ignored the cohabitation provision of the MSA by finding that the addendum was the very “re-evaluation” called for by the settlement agreement;
- in so doing, relegated the addendum as the benchmark event from which a change in circumstance would have to occur to merit further relief for the payor. In other words, it was in error for the trial court to find that the payee’s ongoing cohabitation was not a change in circumstance simply because the cohabitation was initially acknowledged by the parties six (6) years earlier in the executed addendum to the MSA. Specifically, “the trial judge ignored the agreement – and the Konzelman Court’s definition – that more than a casual, perhaps temporary, cohabitation was needed to precipitate a review of the plaintiff’s alimony obligations.”
- the cohabitation here was neither short-term, nor temporary.
- there was no indication in the executed addendum that it in any way superseded the cohabitation provision of the MSA.
As a result, the matter was remanded to the trial court for a period of discovery and ultimate plenary hearing on the payor’s motion to terminate alimony. While not shedding further light on the 2014 cohabitation statute (since this matter applied pre-statute case law), the unique factual scenario at issue only further highlights how cohabitation matters are often unpredictable, and rise and fall on the case-specific circumstances at issue.
Robert Epstein is a partner in Fox Rothschild LLP’s Family Law Practice Group and practices throughout New Jersey and Manhattan. He can be reached at (973) 994-7526, or firstname.lastname@example.org.