Once your divorce is final and alimony decisions are made, either by the court or through your own agreement with your ex, can they be changed? Once again, it depends.
If alimony is granted for an extended period, it normally terminates if the receiving spouse remarries, unless there’s an agreement or court order to the contrary entered at the time of the divorce. However, judges in some states, in some circumstances, have the discretion to continue alimony even after the spouse receiving it remarries—unless your written settlement agreement specifies that payment will stop if one of you remarries.
What happens if the alimony recipient starts living with a partner, rather than remarrying? Alimony may still be terminated or reduced, depending on where you live and the circumstances:
• Most states will authorize reduction or termination of alimony upon cohabitation only if the cohabitation significantly decreases the recipient’s need for support.
• Other states will terminate alimony regardless of whether the recipient’s economic need is diminished by cohabiting.
• In still other states, alimony will not be affected should the spouse who receives it begin living with someone.
The definition of “cohabitation” may vary widely:
• A court in Illinois recently held that a former spouse could be deemed as cohabiting with another person on a “resident, continuing conjugal basis” although her boyfriend lived in a separate residence. What this jargon amounts to is that even though her boyfriend always spent the night at his own apartment, the court felt that the fact that he spent most of his time in her apartment and ate meals there was enough to qualify him as cohabiting with her and, as a result, terminated her alimony. (In re Marriage of Herrin, 262 Ill. App. 3d 573 (1994).)
• Some states, like New York, require that the alimony recipient must not only live with someone (cohabit), but also “hold herself out as the wife” of the man she lives with before alimony is terminated (alimony recipients rarely do this, so alimony is seldom cut off).
• Arkansas has taken a different tack, and requires that the alimony recipient not only live with, but also have children with, the new partner, before alimony will be terminated.
• California and Tennessee both presume that the recipient’s need for support has been reduced once he or she starts cohabiting. In other words, if you move in with a new partner, unless you can prove to a judge that you still need the same amount of alimony, it will be reduced or terminated.
In those states that do not have laws or court decisions that specifically address the impact cohabitation might have on alimony, it is difficult to predict how a judge will rule. Regardless of state law, if you and your ex-spouse have made an agreement that support or alimony won’t be affected by the person who receives it living together with someone new, your agreement will stand. And bear in mind that the person requesting a change in alimony or support payments is the one who must prove that an ex-spouse’s economic situation has changed significantly.
For useful articles on alimony, see the Divorce, Child Support & Child Custody articles in the Divorce & Family Law area of Nolo's site.