Do I Have to Pay Alimony if My Ex is Living With Someone?
Many factors affect alimony. A spouse does not have to marry someone legally in order to be eligible for change in spousal support. Two people can be in a de-facto married relationship where they are not married and they act as a married couple by living together and paying everyday bills, etc.
Attorney Maureen Black of Sterling Law Offices explains how the landmark case Van Gorder v. Van Gorder 110 Wis. 2d 188 , 327 N.W.2d 674 (1983) sets the precedent for how the court rules rather cohabitation allows for the termination of alimony.
Alimony, known legally as spousal maintenance, is a sensitive topic for many divorced couples. Alimony helps a lesser earning spouse maintain a similar standard of living post-divorce or ease their transition into post-divorce life. However, for many, the amount and duration of alimony can feel arbitrary. That makes it hard to know when it is appropriate to try and terminate alimony.
In Wisconsin, there are a few reasons why alimony payments could be changed or stopped entirely. One of the most straightforward scenarios is when the ex-spouse receiving alimony gets remarried. What if an ex-spouse is not married but living with someone else? Is that enough to terminate alimony?
As with many topics in family law, there is not always a simple yes or no answer. By taking a closer look at a real-life case, we can gain a slightly better idea of what situations we can or cannot use to change an alimony order.
Before getting into the specifics, let us review a few basics. Alimony is a court-ordered payment made from one spouse to another, either for a set amount of time or indefinitely. As mentioned earlier, alimony is meant to help a spouse transition to financial independence or to maintain a similar standard of living to the pre-divorce life. Generally, in Wisconsin, alimony is not considered unless the marriage lasted over ten years.
Once the court determines alimony, it is possible to change or stop the payments entirely by proving that either party has had a significant change in circumstances that would affect alimony.
Though a court is much more likely to change the amount of alimony than stop it altogether, there are exceptions. For example:
- If a spouse receiving alimony remarries
- If either spouse has a substantial change in income
In the first case, a spouse does not have to marry a partner legally – but they can be in a de-facto married relationship. What does that mean? Roughly speaking, it means that even though they are not married, they act as a married couple does by living together and paying everyday bills, etc.
Reading this, we might think that means that anytime a spouse moves in with someone else, it would be enough to ask a court to stop paying alimony. However, it is not always so simple.
In 1983, the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard the case of Van Gorder vs. Van Gorder that dealt with this exact issue. In this case, as part of the divorce, the husband was ordered to pay an alimony payment indefinitely.
Ten years later, the ex-wife was in a new relationship and had moved in with her partner. She was sharing expenses, including paying the entire rent amount for the couple. The husband filed a motion to end the alimony payments – arguing the wife was in a “de facto marital relationship” and, therefore, no longer entitled to alimony payments.
We might be thinking of this as a perfect example of a relationship that would end alimony. After all, by the wife's admission, she was living with her new partner and using the alimony for combined expenses.
The trial court initially agreed with the husband. They ordered the alimony payments to terminate. However, the wife appealed it to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where the court's original decision was reversed.
But why? Was it a de-facto marital relationship? To boil it down: cohabitation is only one of many factors considered when changing alimony. A de-facto marital relationship is in and of itself not enough reason to terminate the payments. Instead, the supreme court ordered the trial court to reconsider if the living arrangement ultimately changed the ex-wife's economic circumstances.
To illustrate what we mean, consider this scenario: a person receiving alimony is using that money to pay rent on an apartment. After a while, they enter a relationship with someone else, and they move into the apartment together. For the sake of this example, let us assume they split the rent and bills evenly.
On paper, the partner getting alimony is using her alimony to help support someone else. However, if it is the same apartment, wouldn't they have to pay rent anyway? Did it give them a significant economic advantage?
Consider another scenario. This time, an ex-spouse receiving alimony ends up in a relationship with someone very well off and move in together. This time, the rent and bills are paid in full by the new partner. Instead of using alimony to pay rent, it is used to buy new clothes or expensive gadgets.
As we can imagine, it is an entirely different case.
The various “what if” scenarios are what make alimony tricky. Trial courts have to take cohabitation into account, along with many other things.
Having an experienced lawyer and proper documentation goes a long way to making sure a court can judge cases fairly. Overall, terminating permanent/indefinite alimony (spousal maintenance) is a difficult task. We advise you to try and make sure specific stipulations on when, or how, alimony might stop, are in place during the divorce. Almost always, it is easier to change the amount paid instead of stopping it entirely.
Case Law Friday is a Sterling series focused on communicating in layman's terms cases of precedent, statutes that guide decisions, and court procedures important to getting results in family law.
We hope these deep-dive conversations create clarity, enabling you to better understand the rules that govern how decisions get made in family court.