Cohabitation Alone Not Basis To Terminate Maintenance

In Missouri, maintenance awards obligate a greater-earning spouse to cover the shortfall between the income and reasonable and necessary expenses of the lesser-earning spouse.  While parties may agree that such maintenance awards extend for an indefinite time regardless of the life changes of the parties, maintenance usually terminates when the party receiving maintenance remarries, as courts assume that the new spouse assumes the role of financial contributor once held by the former spouse.

But the statute that allows modification of maintenance awards also recognizes that many divorced individuals opt not to remarry but still enter long-term relationships where they cohabit with a significant other.  That statute states that a court may consider the extent to which the significant other contributes financially to the expenses of the party receiving maintenance in determining whether that maintenance award remains reasonable.

Can cohabitation alone form the basis for terminating maintenance?

The Western District recently addressed this question in Hopkins v. Hopkins.  In this case, husband had been ordered to pay wife maintenance of $1,000 per month.  After the divorce, the court reduced that amount to $489.00.  Subsequently, wife began a relationship with a man whom she allowed to reside in her home, along with her daughter, grandson and her daughter’s girlfriend.  Wife received the house as part of the divorce.  While wife and her new partner do cohabit, their relationship does not resemble a typical partnership, as the man maintains a separate room in the house.  The court described the relationship as friends and roommates who agree to have sex.  Each of the residents, including the male partner, pay their share of the water, cable and cell phone bills, but offer no other financial support.  Husband considered the act of cohabitation over a period of time enough of a basis to terminate maintenance, as the cohabitation had the appearance of marriage.  However, the Western District disagreed.  Even in a permanent relationship, the court has the obligation to examine whether the relationship involves financial support.  In this case, the male partner paid for his share of the utilities (except electric) and did not commingle his finances.  Wife provided a room rent free.  Because the relationship lacked the interdependence of marriage, the appellate court found the trial court correctly denied the motion to terminate maintenance.  The appellate court rejected any contention husband was subsidizing the new relationship of wife because the financial sacrifice of the electric bill was minimal and she had no duty to receive rent from her daughter, daughter’s friend or her male partner.

The lesson of Hopkins seems clear – a maintenance obligation will not be reduced or terminated because of cohabitation with a significant other simply because of the permanence of the relationship; the party paying maintenance must produce evidence that the party receiving maintenance is also receiving financial support from her cohabitant.

If you have questions about cohabitation and maintenance, contact us – we can help.