California Court Interprets Agreement’s ‘Cohabitation’ Language to Require ‘Committed Relationship’

coupleA recent case from the Fourth District Court of Appeal serves as a reminder of the factual and legal intricacies that can be involved in the issues of cohabitation and the termination of spousal support. In this case, the ex-husband had ample evidence that the ex-wife had a boyfriend who resided primarily with her and that the couple were in a romantic/sexual relationship that included sleeping together, vacationing together, and spending holidays and birthdays together. This, the appeals court ruled, was not enough. To bring an end to his spousal support payments, the husband needed to offer evidence regarding whether the wife’s relationship was “akin to marriage” in involving a mutual commitment to support each other, and he also needed to establish the extent to which the new relationship affected the wife’s need for spousal support.

The former spouses, Robert and Caroline Kassel, married in 1991 and separated in 2009. They completed a divorce in 2012, reaching a marital settlement agreement as part of that process, which the trial court incorporated into the divorce judgment. The agreement contained a section stating that the husband would pay spousal support to the wife until one of them died, or the wife re-married or began cohabitating.

A year after the court entered the divorce judgment, the husband returned to court, asking the judge to terminate his spousal support obligation. The wife had been cohabitating with a man for several months. The wife acknowledged that she had been in a relationship with the man in question, but she said that the relationship had ended and that she never cohabitated with him. As an alternate argument, she asked the court, if it found that the boyfriend and she had cohabitated, merely to suspend the right to receive spousal support during those months, rather than terminating the support entirely.

The trial court granted the husband’s request and denied the wife’s. The wife’s arrangement with her boyfriend met the statutory definition of cohabitation, and this cohabitation triggered a permanent cessation of spousal support. The evidence made it clear, according to the trial court, that she and the boyfriend carried on a “sexual, if not a romantic, relationship for more than three years,” which included sleeping in the same bed, going on vacations together, and celebrating holidays and birthdays together.

The trial court also decided that the agreement was clear that cohabitation triggered a permanent end to spousal support. While the wife argued that the correct interpretation was that the support would “cease to be due,” not “terminate,” the trial judge decided this was a distinction without a difference. In either interpretation, the support obligation ended permanently.

The wife appealed, and the appeals court reversed the decision in favor of the husband, sending the case back to the trial court for further review. The appeals court concluded that, since the marital settlement agreement specifically said that the husband’s obligation ended upon death, remarriage, or cohabitation, this necessarily meant that the type of cohabitation required was one in which the relationship was analogous to marriage. The law demanded that the court interpret the cohabitation term in the agreement as meaning a relationship in which both the wife and her boyfriend displayed a commitment to provide for each other’s support, since anything else would be an impermissible moral judgment. Cutting off support based solely on the fact that the wife was living with a person and engaging in an unmarried, uncommitted, but romantic/sexual relationship with that person “would upend California’s long established system of no-fault divorce.”

In sending the case back to the trial court, the appeals court ordered the lower court to conduct a new trial to determine whether or not the wife’s relationship was one “akin to marriage, by which each partner by words or conduct has evidenced a commitment to care for the other,” and whether this relationship triggered a reduction in the ex-wife’s need for support.

Whether you are seeking to reduce your spousal support or defend against a reduction in your support, the diligent San Diego divorce attorneys at Doppelt & Forney can help. Our attorneys have been helping clients throughout Southern California, including in San Diego, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Chula Vista, for many years and have the skills to help you with your case. For a free consultation about your divorce, reach out to Doppelt & Forney through our website or call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

More blog posts:

Wording of Stipulated Divorce Judgment Didn’t Allow California Husband to Alter Child and Spousal Support Obligations, San Diego Divorce Lawyer Blog, Sept. 13, 2016

California Court Upholds Modification of Spousal Support, Cites Family Code Factors, San Diego Divorce Lawyer Blog, Feb. 2, 2016