If a dependent spouse starts living with an unrelated adult after the divorce, is that enough to terminate the supporting spouse’s alimony obligation? While the answer to that question is not as simple as one would think, it is an issue that often arises, especially in a troubled economy where many supporting spouses are having a more difficult time meeting their payment obligations.
In New Jersey, “cohabitation” is considered a “changed circumstance” allowing the supporting spouse to seek an alimony reduction by first obtaining discovery and then demonstrating that the dependent spouse’s needs have either decreased because the third person is contributing to the dependent spouse’s support or is effectively subsidizing the dependent spouse at the supporting spouse’s expense. What, however, is meant by cohabitation? Courts in this state have concluded that it does not merely mean a so-called dating relationship, but, rather, involves a relationship described as having the “generic character of a family unit as a relatively permanent household” where there exists an “intimate relationship in which the couple has undertaken duties and privileges that are commonly associated with marriage.” What does that mean? Since each situation is different, a court will look at a given set of facts for the marital-type relationship including, but not limited to, a joint residence, joint/connected finances, shared living expenses and performance of household tasks, and the relationship is held out in this way to the community, social groups, and family.
Once the supporting spouse establishes the changed circumstance of cohabitation, the burden of proof then shifts to the dependent spouse to prove that he or she has derived no economic benefit from proven cohabitation. The reason that the burden shift is simple – the dependent spouse has greater access to relevant information than does the supporting spouse to disprove a cohabitation benefit.