Spousal support, often called alimony in everyday conversation, is one of the biggest topics people ask us about. One question that pops up all the time is, “If my ex moves in with a new partner, do I still have to pay spousal support?” It’s tricky, but the impact of cohabitation on spousal support comes up a lot.
As with most court orders, once in place, spousal support is usually difficult to change. With things like child support, if you demonstrate a significant change in your financial circumstances, you may be able to make a modification—though that, too, can be tough.
When it comes to spousal support, this also holds true. An ex cohabitating with someone else may fall into this category and prove enough to get a modification. Then again, courts are reluctant and that may not be enough. It’s often a rough road.
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How Courts Decide on Spousal Support
Spousal support payments are designed to smooth the transition from married life to divorced life. It most often shows up in situations where there’s a large earning gap between spouses. Essentially, this occurs when one spouse needs financial help to get back on their feet after the end of a marriage. In certain situations, spousal support is temporary, though in others it continues indefinitely.
While child support follows a rigid formula, spousal support is less formulaic. When considering whether or not to award payments, the courts consider many factors. This includes the length of the marriage, education and job skills, the earning potential of both spouses, health concerns, the standard of living while married, child-rearing responsibilities, level of need, and more.
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What Is Cohabitation?
In California law, there is no strict definition of “cohabitation.” Over the years, it’s been broadly interpreted by the courts. For the most part, it remains up to the individual court to decide.
However, in general, it’s when a non-married couple in an intimate relationship lives together and uses that address as their primary residence. Staying over a couple of nights a week doesn’t mean they share a home.
How Cohabitation Impacts Spousal Support
If your divorce settlement requires you to pay spousal support, making payments while knowing your ex is living with someone else may be a bitter pill to swallow. You also may be able to do something about it.
“Except as otherwise agreed to by the parties in writing, there is a rebuttable presumption, affecting the burden of proof, of decreased need for spousal support if the supported party is cohabiting with a nonmarital partner. Upon a determination that circumstances have changed, the court may modify or terminate the spousal support.”
Basically, that’s legal-speak for if your ex is now in a romantic relationship, and they live together, this cohabitation may be enough for the courts to take a look at your case. This may represent a significant change in financial circumstances. And that may be enough to modify your spousal support payments.
Notice the repeated emphasis on the word may. As already mentioned, the courts are reluctant to go back and change a previous ruling.
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What Does This Mean For You?
The legal language is vague, which is readily apparent. Though the situation may look like a financial boon from your perspective, the courts may not view it in the same light. Overall, they have a great deal of leeway to interpret and enforce the law. Much of this falls in a grey area that’s open to individual readings.
It’s even more difficult because the burden of proof falls on you, the person making the claim. Again, the courts don’t like to rock the boat and alter what’s already set. This is a big part of why spousal support modifications are a rare occurrence. And why they’re so difficult to pull off. Even if you show improvement in your ex’s finances, the court often orders you to continue payments anyway.
It’s frustrating to be sure. Many feel like they face an uphill battle, and many times in these situations, they’re right. Spousal support modification remains tough. When you throw cohabitating into the mix, it only further complicates things.
The best way to pay a fair amount in spousal support is to get it right the first time. Take the steps to ensure you pay a reasonable amount, one you can live with. It’s probably easiest to go on with your life and let your ex do the same.
As in most cases, if you hope to show how cohabitation impacts spousal support, it’s in your best interests to talk to a family law attorney. If you have questions, someone with experience can help you determine if you have a legitimate case and guide you through the process if you move forward.
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