For many people engaged in a bitter divorce, paying alimony may seem like salt in a fresh wound. While alimony was created to allow a financially-dependent spouse to maintain the same standard of living as before the marriage’s dissolution for a period of time – some former spouses take advantage of the system by secretly cohabitating with “partners” while still getting support.
Alimony can be modified when a change in circumstances makes the same level of assistance no longer necessary. Until last year, New Jersey courts required a former spouse claiming cohabitation to prove 3 things: 1) that the ex-spouse and his/her paramour have an intimate relationship that mirrors the shared duties of marriage, 2) that the relationship is longstanding and stable, and 3) that the two are living in the same residence. However, cohabitating parties could sidestep these factors by keeping the intimate or financial nature of their relationship secret (being merely roommates is often not enough to warrant a change in alimony).
The 2014 Alimony Reform Act gave courts, lawyers and divorcing couples a clearer picture of what cohabitation now means for the purposes of reducing or ending alimony. The new law defines cohabitation with an 7-factor analysis: 1) intermingled finances such as joint bank accounts and other joint holdings or liabilities; 2) shared or joint responsibility for living expenses; 3) 4 recognition of the relationship in the couple’s family and social circle; 4) living together, the frequency of contact, the duration of the relationship, and other evidence of a mutually supportive intimate personal relationship; 5) shared household chores; 6) whether the alimony recipient has received an enforceable promise of support from another individual; and 7) any additional relevant evidence. The law also no longer requires that the ex-spouse and the paramour share the same household. If enough of the factors are met that the relationship appears to have “undertaken duties and privileges that are commonly associated with marriage or civil union,” then alimony may be reduced or terminated entirely.
Recently, in a case called Spangenberg v. Kolakowski, a New Jersey Appellate Court said that the Reform Act’s cohabitation provision does not apply to post-divorce judgment alimony modification orders finalized before its effective date (September 10, 2014). So if a judge issued a modification (or refused to do so) based on the pre-Reform Act cohabitation analysis, that modification cannot be changed in light of the new law. But today, for those who suspect their exes might be taking advantage of the alimony distribution system, the 2014 Alimony Reform Act may provide a clearer and easier way to ensure fairness. Loree Varella, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2016 collaborated on this blog. She is Associate Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal and Managing Research Editor of that publication.