What Is Cohabitation and When Does It Terminate Alimony?
In North Carolina, there are various methods for an alimony order to terminate. One such way is by cohabitation by the dependent spouse (the spouse receiving alimony). But what exactly is cohabitation, and how does it impact an alimony order?
Cohabitation is defined by our statutes as an act whereby two adults live together “continuously and habitually” in a private relationship. Note that it does not require that these two adults be married. Nor does it state the genders of the adults. It is evidenced by a “voluntary and mutual assumption of marital rights, duties, and obligations” that are typically present in a married couple. It includes having a sexual relationship but is not dependent upon that. Finally, the Court must determine whether adults have assumed those duties, rights, and obligations based upon the totality of the circumstances. Our courts have coined a phrase, “held themselves out as man and wife” to encompass the assumption of duties. Much of the circumstances relate to the financial situation of the party that is purportedly cohabitating. This makes sense, as the intent behind having cohabitation terminate alimony is to ensure that a formerly dependent spouse is not receiving alimony in bad faith.
Evidence to prove cohabitation falls under two categories: objective and subjective. Objective evidence of cohabitation could include joint financial account statements, living together continuously and purchasing furnishings for the shared home, having meals together, taking trips together, and general evidence of overt acts showing an exclusive relationship. Subjective evidence, usually meaning the intent of the parties, can only be considered by the court when the objective evidence of either party conflicts with the other on the issue of cohabitation.
What kinds of evidence do the courts consider? Overnight stays, combining and sharing of resources such as income, combining and sharing of possessions and personal property such as cars, monogamous sexual relations, and merging of families (if children are involved). Evidence of the assumption of marital duties includes daily household chores, yardwork, trips and vacations together, and generally the day-to-day minutiae of a long-term, committed relationship that could be characterized as marital.
The bar for finding cohabitation seems high, understandably, as courts do not wish to delve into characterizing the morality and intimate nature of relationships. Only clear evidence that two adults have decided to be economically reliant upon one another seems to meet that bar.