Will Cohabitation Wipe out Spousal Maintenance Awards Now?

On August 1, 2016, there are some seismic shifts happening in family law, especially as it relates to spousal maintenance. Spousal maintenance can be established by settlement Stacked rocksor a court decision. And until recently it only ended three ways:

  • An end date agreed to or decided by the court
  • The death of either party
  • The remarriage of the person receiving spousal maintenance.

But if a person receiving spousal maintenance just lives with another person, the spousal maintenance does not end. But that is changing.

Let’s back up. How is spousal maintenance decided in the first place? There is no straight answer, no magic calculator (like the one for child support) that helps judges decide the appropriate amount and duration. What we do know with some certainty is this: in a longer marriage, with significant difference in incomes, the door for spousal maintenance is open.

The goal of maintenance for each person is for them to have the same (or similar) standard of living as during the marriage.  If one person can’t do that on their own income, we discuss maintenance. If the other person can meet their own living expenses even while paying maintenance to their ex, a maintenance award is more likely. As both people’s lives change following the divorce, so too can the maintenance obligation.

Back to cohabitation. It’s true that living with a significant other isn’t socially taboo anymore. Many people who move in together share expenses. Should moving on with life and moving in with a boyfriend or girlfriend have an impact on the maintenance someone receives from their ex? Should we assume the new happy couple is sharing expenses in the first place?

Let’s take it one step further: should moving in with anyone have an impact on maintenance? Some people move back in with mom and dad following a divorce. Some get a roommate, both to offset expenses and to have some companionship. Think of the Golden Girls, for example.

The New Law

On May 19, 2016, Governor Dayton signed a bill into law that has a significant effect on those paying and receiving maintenance. The statute, entitled “Cohabitation,” has been added to Minn. Stat. 518.552. It allows for modification of maintenance awards when a recipient lives with another adult. But what exactly does this new law mean?  Does it mean you cannot live with your parents after a divorce, or get a roommate?  Will those arrangements end maintenance payments?

The new statute states that in determining whether maintenance should be terminated or modified, the Court should consider these factors:

  • Whether the obligee would marry the cohabitant but for the maintenance award;
  • The economic benefit the obligee would derive from the cohabitation;
  • The length of cohabitation and the likely future duration of cohabitation; and
  • The economic impact on the obligee if maintenance is modified and the cohabitation ends.

What Does This Mean?

These factors bring about many questions. Here’s what we think:

Roommates Don’t Count. For the statute to apply, there has to be a romantic cohabitating relationship. Proving “whether the obligee would marry the cohabitant but for the maintenance award” seems endlessly complicated. Our short answer: Laverne and Shirley don’t count, the Golden Girls don’t count, and Leonard and Sheldon don’t count.

Sharing Expenses. What matters second most is whether a person receiving maintenance benefits financially from the cohabitation. That could be in the form of rent received, expenses shared, or something else. If the maintenance recipient’s expenses don’t change, then maintenance shouldn’t change.

Is This Forever? How long is the maintenance recipient going to live with their roommate? Do they intend it to be a temporary arrangement or is this a long term commitment? How are people going to prove this?

What Happens if the Roommate Relationship Ends Unexpectedly? How would it affect spousal maintenance? Would the recipient be able to meet their expenses on their own? How would far in the future would this be relevant?

SIDE EFFECTS

One thing we know for sure is that this statute is going to have side effects. Check these out:

Keeping Tabs on an Ex. Folks who didn’t want anything to do with each other might now be more interested in the other’s lives. Re-marriage has long been a reason to terminate maintenance, but those paying maintenance now have another reason to keep track of their ex’s love life. The nature of the new relationship, how long it has lasted, and how the couple share expenses are all susdenly relevant.

Mass Re-Evaluation. This new law will quite likely cause many people to re-evaluate their spousal maintenance obligations. Be sure to consult with an attorney to help understand how the new law could affect your spousal maintenance situation.

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