No. In fact, the only time, pursuant to New Jersey’s alimony laws, that cohabitation of the person receiving alimony may automatically terminate the payor’s obligation to make these payments would be if your lawyer successfully fought to have an “automatic cohabitation alimony termination” clause placed into your Property Settlement Agreement. This is why it is essential that you hire an attorney who only handles divorce and alimony matters. Our East Brunswick, New Jersey law firm concentrates solely on divorce and family law matters. Below is this attorney’s take on a recent New Jersey appellate case in which analyzes how a court evaluates cohabitation and alimony termination or reduction motions.
In Leonard v. Leonard, the parties divorced in 2013 after a seventeen-year marriage bearing no children. When the divorce was finalized, the Wife received an annual salary of $56,000, and the Husband had recently lost his job where he had received $96,000 annually. In the final judgment of divorce, the Husband had agreed to pay permanent alimony of $200.00 per week, terminating only at either of their deaths or if the Wife was to remarry.
Several years later, in 2017, the Husband filed a motion to terminate his alimony payments based on his claim that the Wife had moved in with the man she was seeing and had been living with him for several years. He claimed that she had denied it during the divorce proceedings and that he had hired a private detective to verify her cohabitation. He argued that the Wife’s standard of living had improved, while he continued to decrease. He had lost his job, and after finally regaining employment was receiving a salary $37,000 less than what he had received during their marriage.
In opposing his motion, the Wife claimed that cohabitation was not one of the three bases that would warrant termination of the alimony, as was designated in their divorce judgment. The agreement the parties had signed designated that the permanent alimony payments would only be terminated at the death of the Husband or Wife, or if the Wife remarried. The Wife did admit to having an “on again off again” relationship with the man she had lived with at various times, but she argued that he had never financially supported her or granted her any economic benefits. The Wife further argued that due to the sudden death of her son, she had been unable to work overtime in her nursing position and her salary had decreased to $36,000. She argued that unlike her involuntary employment situation, the Husband had been terminated due to his own workplace misconduct.
The Husband argued, however, that he had only agreed to pay the proposed alimony because he was unaware that the Wife was to be living with another man. Presently, with both parties receiving nearly the same salary, the Husband argued that his alimony obligation should no longer be enforced.
Despite the Husband’s argument, the trial court denied his request to terminate the alimony payments. The judge stated that both parties had drafted and agreed to the terms of the final judgment of divorce and that the Husband had the opportunity to address his concerns about cohabitation during the divorce proceedings. The trial judge held that his decision not to press to have cohabitation listed as grounds for termination of the alimony payments and his decision to sign the agreement made his arguments against its validity unsuccessful.
The judge continued to argue that there had not been sufficient “changed circumstances” to warrant reassessing or terminating the alimony payments. Both the Husband and the Wife had experienced decreases in their annual salaries, and the judge determined that these decreases were mostly the result of voluntary underemployment. The Husband had lost his job due to his own conduct, and the Wife had not produced any evidence that she was unable to work at her prior capacity. Further, the judge determined that the inquiry would include income capacity, not just income earned at the time of the divorce. If she were to find that there were changed circumstances, she would impute the same income to each party regardless of their actual current income which would result in no change to the alimony the parties had already negotiated.
In his appeal, the Husband argued that the trial court had incorrectly applied the standard for determining if there were changed circumstances and that continuing to enforce the alimony obligation was no longer fair or equitable. He further argued that the law does not require cohabitation language in a marriage settlement agreement in order to review cohabitation as a change in circumstances. The Appellate Court rejected the Husband’s argument, stating that the trial court had not been incorrect in denying the Husband’s request to terminate alimony. Marital settlement agreements are treated and interpreted as contracts, and the job of the court is to consider what was written in the agreement, as well as the context of the circumstances surrounding the agreement in deciding how it should be enforced.
The Appellate Court stated that the trial court had correctly reviewed the terms of the agreement, and determined that the bases for termination did not include cohabitation. The court stated that the Husband was incorrect in arguing that cohabitation should be considered as a change in circumstance warranting termination of his permanent alimony payments even though it was not included in the agreement. While the agreement was being executed, the Husband had the opportunity to request including cohabitation as a basis for terminating alimony payments but chose not to. The agreement which both parties signed stated that the alimony payments were permanent, and would only be terminated at either parties’ death, or if the Wife remarried. Therefore, the Appellate Division held that the trial court was correct in denying the Husband’s request to terminate his alimony payments.
If you or a loved one is confronting an alimony problem, please contact our office today to learn how we may help.