In most divorce cases, the terms of any spousal or child support obligation are set forth in either a court order or an agreement between the parties. Often, that includes a stipulation that spousal support payments will stop when the person receiving them remarries or otherwise “cohabitates” with another person. In In re Marriage of Woillard, California’s Second District Court of Appeals makes clear that the term “cohabitation” is interpreted fairly broadly.
Husband and Wife divorced in 1990 after what the Court called a “lengthy” marriage. Under the terms of the divorce judgment, Husband was required to pay wife $4,000 a month in spousal support until Husband or Wife died or until she was remarried or began cohabitating with an “unrelated male.” In 2011, Husband filed an action seeking to terminate the spousal support payment, arguing that Wife had been cohabitating with her boyfriend, Keith, for the last six years. A trial court agreed, concluding that the spousal support agreement expired in 2005 and ordering Wife to pay Husband back $256,000 in support payments that she shouldn’t have received.
The Court noted that Wife and Keith were engaged in 2004, vacationed and attended family events together and “shared significant resources” through the course of their relationship, which began three years earlier. Wife loaned Keith $30,000 – an amount he later paid back – and he often stayed at her home, where he kept clothes and other personal belongings and received his mail. The couple kept a joint checking account related to expenses and rental income for two condominiums that Wife owned. They also jointly purchased a boat in 2005, securing a loan for it by using Wife’s home as collateral. Keith slept on the boat when he didn’t stay at Wife’s house.
The trial judge concluded that Wife had been “patently deceptive” and made “considered efforts to conceal her significant, monogamous relationship” with Keith, including by purchasing the boat with him in order to keep up the appearance that they lived apart. The Second District agreed on appeal.
“Cohabitation involves a committed personal relationship, which can be sexual or romantic, or a homemaker-companion relationship,” the Court explained, citing the Fourth District’s 1979 decision in In re Marriage of Thweatt. “In deciding whether parties are cohabiting, courts consider the personal, financial, and residential aspects of the parties’ relationship.” Specifically, the Court said that cohabitation may involve the sharing of financial resources or labor.
While Wife claimed that she and Keith weren’t cohabitating because they maintained separate homes, the Court said the evidence in the record told a different story. “[Wife] and Keith shared two residences, their boat and her home, and slept together four or five nights a week, for at least a few years, starting in August 2005. As a result, the Court held that the trial judge properly terminated the support judgment and correctly ordered Wife to pay back undue support payments.
As this case shows, contentious legal disputes related to a divorce can arise long after former spouses have gone their separate ways. These issues – as well as much of the stress that often accompanies divorce cases – can be minimized through alternatives to litigation, such as collaborative divorce and mediation. With offices throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, California divorce lawyer Lorna Jaynes provides innovative legal tools to resolve many family law disputes without the bitterness and acrimony engendered by the adversarial process.
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