Moving in with a new partner is a happy occasion, but it's a decision that comes with heavy consequences for those who are receiving alimony. In New Jersey, alimony may be modified or terminated if the recipient remarries or cohabitates with a significant other. While cohabitation can be proven by numerous factors, the most common indicator is the act of sharing a mutual residence. What happens, though, when you or your significant other moves out? Should alimony be reinstated in that case, especially if you've been largely or wholly dependent on your former spouse for financial support?
That question was addressed by the New Jersey Supreme Court in May of this year in the case of Quinn v. Quinn. David and Cathleen Quinn, who divorced in 2006, had a property settlement agreement (PSA) that stated “alimony shall terminate upon the Husband's death, the Wife's remarriage, or the Wife's cohabitation per case of statutory law.” After the divorce, Cathleen's boyfriend continued to maintain his own residence, but David was able to prove that this was for appearances only. The court, however, opted to only “suspend” alimony instead of terminating it on a permanent basis.
The reason for their ruling was that the cohabitation ended about a month after the termination filing. Despite the clause in the PSA, the court determined that there was a great disparity between Cathleen and David's income, to the point where Cathleen was “entirely dependent on her alimony for her support.” Thus, the alimony payments were reinstated, although David was awarded $145,536.74 in legal fees because Cathleen was found to have litigated in bad faith, in addition to giving false testimony. Both parties appealed, but the Appellate court only granted David's petition for permanent alimony termination, and determined that the trial court improperly modified the “clear and unequivocal terms of a PSA entered knowingly and voluntarily by both parties.” The ruling expanded on the trial court's error by stating, “Here, there were no compelling reasons to depart from the clear, unambiguous, and mutually understood terms of the PSA.” Furthermore, “An agreement that resolves a matrimonial dispute is no less a contract than an agreement to resolve a business dispute.”
Quinn v. Quinn is a sobering reminder that what you sign for today could come back to haunt you years down the road. Although a previous case, Lepis v. Lepis established that “contract principles has no place in the law of domestic relations,” that may no longer be the case after Quinn v. Quinn. There are compelling circumstances to continue or extend alimony beyond the standard agreement, but it's much more difficult to reinstate alimony once it's been stopped. That's why it's important to work through your divorce with an experienced attorney, who can help you negotiate and fight for the terms that are in your best interests. For more information on your alimony rights and legal options, please speak with the divorce attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.