Meeker v. Meeker, 2024-NCCOA-______ (2024).
Facts: Husband and Wife married in 1982 and had two children. They separated in 2009 and finalized their divorce in May 2011.
During their separation, they entered into a separation agreement, stating that Husband would pay Wife $7,577.78 per month in spousal support until 2025, and Wife waived her right to alimony. The agreement also specified that Husband’s spousal support obligation would cease upon Wife’s death, remarriage, or cohabitation.
While the Agreement and court orders referred to the monthly payments as “alimony,” they were considered contractual obligations or “spousal support payments” rather than alimony, as they were not adopted by any court order. In 2011, the couple divorced. In 2018, Wife began dating and spent most nights at her new partner’s home for over two years. In 2019, Husband stopped the monthly spousal support payments, believing Wife was cohabiting, which, according to the agreement, would terminate his obligation. Wife filed for breach in 2019, alleging Husband breached the Agreement and sought an order for him to fulfill his monthly spousal support obligation.
After hearings, in June 2021, the trial court found Wife had not been cohabiting and ordered Husband to continue monthly payments. The court also determined Husband owed fifteen months in back support payments. In November 2021, the trial court held Husband in contempt for not complying with the order and provided him with a plan to purge himself of contempt by making specified payments. On November 30, 2021, Husband appealed.
Issue: Did the trial court err in finding that the wife did not cohabitate?
Rationale: Husband’s first assignment of error was that the trial court used the statutory definition of cohabitation, from the alimony statute. Since this was a separation agreement, the statutory definition of cohabitation does not automatically apply. Rather, the intent of the parties is applied; this is a long-held doctrine within contract law.
However, legal dictionaries and case law mirrored the statutory definition of cohabitation so closely that, even using the case law definition of cohabitation, the trial court’s extensive findings supported the conclusion that wife was not cohabitating with a new boyfriend.
Notably, and interestingly, a footnote addressed an issue that was argued by the husband: whether it was proper that he carried the burden to prove wife was cohabitating. Under the alimony statute, which was not used in this private separation agreement, the party claiming that their ex-spouse is cohabitating bears the burden of proving such cohabitation.