Massachusetts Alimony Law of Cohabitation

Why should I keep paying alimony to my ex when she’s living with someone else and it’s essentially a marriage without a license?

Before March 1, 2012 when the most recent MA Alimony Law went into effect, recipients of alimony were able to remain in marriage-like relationships - just without the official license - and continue to receive alimony. On the other hand, if the recipient were to marry, alimony would terminate immediately. This created obvious unfairness.

And from that unfairness, the MA Alimony Cohabitation provision was born.

The Law now obligates a judge to either reduce, suspend, or terminate alimony if the recipient is in “cohabitation” with someone else continuously for at least 3 months. Marriage is no longer a prerequisite.

Definition of Cohabitation

Cohabitation essentially means there’s a “common household,” which takes into consideration representations to third parties made by the people living together, the degree of economic interdependence between them, whether they’re engaging in conduct and roles in furtherance of their life together, the benefit to the parties of the relationship, whether they have a reputation in the community for being a couple, and other factors a judge may deem relevant.

Only for Sexual Relationships?

While the focus of the law is clearly on “couples” in a traditional sexual relationship, there’s a question about whether it necessarily preclude other types of relationships. What if they’re not having sex, but the degree of financial interdependence is significant? The law is focused on finances, not hearts. It would seem that if the goal is to fairly account for either extra income or extra expenses as a result of the recipient living with someone else, whether or not they’re in a sexual relationship should not be a decisive factor. As more cases are decided by the higher courts, we’ll gain clarity on the limitations of the law.

As a practical matter, however, if a recipient is living with another person - even if not in a sexual relationship - the “need” for alimony may be affected, which is one of the key factors in alimony. And this may constitute a “material change in circumstance,” which is the default standard for modifications.

How Far Back Can We Go?

In 2015, the state’s highest court decided that the cohabitation provision of the law only applies to cases resolved after a passage of the law on 3/1/12. So if the case was resolved before then, the parties cannot use the cohabitation provision to attempt to change their alimony order. Those parties can only file if there’s a “material change in circumstance.”

For the past couple of years, there’s been legislation pending to address this issue and to attempt to apply the law to older cases. It’s unknown at this point whether it’ll pass.

Summary

Gone are the days when recipients of alimony could live as if married but without the license and continue to receive alimony as if single. However, the current state of the law is that if the case was resolved before 3/1/12, cohabitation alone cannot be the grounds for changing an alimony order. Nonetheless, overall, the law has made significant strides in reducing unfairness on this issue.

If you have any cohabitation questions, feel free to contact us for an assessment.