Author’s note by Attorney Howard Iken: Florida has a cohabitation statute that was originally intended to terminate alimony if the person receiving payments starts to live with another person in a way that suggests they intend to live like a married couple. In practice, the statute has become a method to modify alimony rather than terminate it. There is new legislation that may make the termination process easier. But the standard of proof to show there is cohabitation remains difficult.
Introduction to Cohabitation and Alimony
Imagine your surprise if, having been ordered to pay your ex-spouse $5,000 per month in alimony, you discovered that he or she had moved in with a boyfriend or girlfriend. After some time, your ex-spouse, his or her new partner, and about 50 of their friends and family decide to fly out to Las Vegas for a “Weekend Wedding.” Video from the weekend shows your ex-spouse and his or her partner staging an unofficial wedding, complete with an exchange of vows and rings, a wedding ceremony, and even a reception. The only thing missing from the whole spectacle is a wedding license. You try to terminate your alimony order, but the court orders the alimony order to continue; because there was no wedding license issued, there was no legal wedding. In other words, despite your ex-spouse’s new relationship and disposable income, you must continue paying him or her $5,000 per month. Under these circumstances, how would you feel?
Pre-2005 Modification or Termination of Alimony
A very similar situation prompted Gary Siplin, a Florida state senator from Orlando, to sponsor a change in Florida’s law regarding the modification and termination of alimony in 2005. Before this, the law only allowed for the termination of most forms of alimony when either spouse died or when the receiving spouse remarried. Modification of an alimony order was only allowed when there was a substantial change in the circumstances of the parties, and doing so was difficult in cases involving cohabitation.
Senate Bill 152 was introduced to correct this sort of situation. This bill made changes to Florida Statute § 61.14 and was designed to address alimony recipients who were avoiding having their alimony award terminated by a subsequent marriage. So long as these recipients merely cohabitated with their new partner, as opposed to marrying the new partner, the other spouse would have to continue paying alimony.
Changes in the Law Allow Consideration of Cohabitation (Supportive Relationships)
As a result of Senate Bill 152, Florida law concerning modifying or terminating alimony because of a “supportive relationship” (cohabitation) changed significantly in 2005:
Defining Cohabitation or a “Supportive Relationship”
Basically, a “supportive relationship” for purposes of Florida law may exist in cases where an ex-spouse and alimony recipient is residing with another person to whom he or she is not related. For instance, where an ex-spouse moves in or cohabitates with a boyfriend, girlfriend, or even a platonic (non-romantic) friend, and these two individuals share expenses or otherwise support each other financially, a supportive relationship may exist.
There are certain situations that will not qualify as a supportive relationship. First, a supportive relationship does not exist if the ex-spouse moves in with a person related by blood or marriage. So an ex-spouse who moves in with a sibling or parent is not in a “supportive relationship,” even if the sibling or parent is supporting the ex-spouse. Nor does a supportive relationship exist where the ex-spouse is living with a non-relative but the two do not support one another and instead keep their finances wholly separate.
Proving Cohabitation or a Supportive Relationship
Just because one ex-spouse suspects the other is in a supportive relationship does not mean he or she can stop paying alimony. Before a court will terminate or modify an existing alimony order because of a supportive relationship, the supportive relationship must be proven in court. The person wanting to terminate or modify the alimony order – in almost every case this is the person paying alimony, or “obligor” – bears the burden of producing evidence showing that a supportive relationship exists. The ex-spouse receiving alimony – the “obligee” – is not required to disprove the existence of a supportive relationship.
The supportive relationship must be proven “by a preponderance of the evidence.” Lawyers and legal professionals usually describe this standard by saying that it must be more likely than not that the proposition is true. Or, to put it another way, if something is 51 percent likely to be true, then it has been shown by a preponderance of the evidence.
Judges are able to look at a variety of circumstances and evidence in determining whether a supportive relationship exists. These include, but are not limited to, the following:
Extent the Ex-Spouse and the Other Person Have Held Themselves Out as a Married Couple: If the obligee and his or her cohabiting partner have been acting like a married couple, a court is more likely to find a supportive relationship exists. Acts such as using the same last name, using a common mailing address, or referring to the other partner as one’s “husband” or “wife” are all circumstances the court will consider.
The Period of Time that the Obligee Has Resided with the Other Person in a Permanent Residence: The longer the obligee and the other person have lived together in a single residence, the more it will appear to the court that the two are in a supportive relationship. Conversely, if the obligee and the other person have separate addresses and occasionally spend the night with one another, then the court may find this weighs against a showing that a supportive relationship exists.
Pooling of Assets: One of the key characteristics of a supportive relationship is that another person is helping to support the obligee financially. Thus, if the obligee and his or her partner share a bank account, pay each other’s bills (or share responsibility for paying bills), share groceries, support one another’s children or otherwise combine their resources, it is strong evidence suggesting a supportive relationship exists. Evidence that either the obligee or the other person supports the other in whole or part can also indicate a supportive relationship is present.
Additionally, if the obligee and other person have combined their resources to purchase real estate or personal property, this can show a pooling of assets. Finally, if the obligee and other person have an express agreement regarding how they will share property or support one another, this will also be evidence tending to show a supportive relationship.
Increase in Value of Assets: Suppose that after a divorce the obligee was awarded a house that was worth only $50,000. Suppose next that the obligee and his or her partner work to renovate the house, increasing its value to $75,000. Increasing the value of property like this can indicate to a court that a supportive relationship exists.
Valuable Services: An obligee or his or her partner who performs “valuable services” for the other may be demonstrating the existence of a supportive relationship. The services can be performed for the other person directly or on behalf of the other’s employer or company.
For instance, suppose an obligee babysits his or her partner’s children while he or she is at work, or helps keep the books, or does the taxes for the partner’s home business. All of these can be considered “valuable services” that can show the existence of a supportive relationship.
Modification and Termination of Alimony in Florida
The new Florida laws regarding modification and termination of alimony still allow most forms of alimony to terminate whenever either the obligor or obligee dies, or when the obligee remarries. Likewise, alimony can be modified whenever there is a change in circumstances of either of the parties (such as an obligor who experiences a decrease in income or loss of job, or an obligee who gains new employment). Alimony is not designed to be a punishment, but is instead designed to help the obligee be able to maintain a standard of living similar to the standard of living he or she was used to while married. Alimony is also meant to help the obligee reestablish himself- or herself after a divorce and get back on his or her feet. This is why, for example, alimony can be terminated after the obligee remarries or modified after the obligee gets a new, better-paying job.
Cohabitation After a Divorce May Ultimately Put an End to Alimony
The Florida Legislature recognized that cohabitation and supportive relationships can result in the same sort of situation for the modification of alimony as remarriage or a job change. Obligees in supportive relationships have many of the same benefits of traditional marriage and have less of a need for alimony from an ex-spouse. They often have the benefits of an additional income to assist with their expenses, or the support of a partner which enables them to find a new job, work more hours, or otherwise increase their income and assets. Because of this, the Florida Legislature modified state law to allow obligors to ask for alimony to be modified or terminated where a supportive relationship has given the obligee benefits similar to a marriage.
Obligees will do well to be careful with their actions if they decide to cohabitate with someone else after a divorce. In particular, obligees should consider keeping their funds separate from the other person’s and not share in expenses or bills. Otherwise, a court may find that a “supportive relationship” exists and may either lower or even terminate alimony.
Latest Alimony Laws
Florida has new legislation on the burner that can possibly strengthen rights to reduce alimony if there are cohabitation issues. This is a developing issue that we are covering in our Alimony Reform in Florida section.