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Alimony for Cohabiters: A Bitter Pill?

Should alimony payments keep going to ex-spouses who live with new partners? Many feel Connecticut's cohabitation laws need an update.

Alimony is one of the most charged words in English. A word that opens the door to all kinds of heartache. Divorce. Lawyers. Money. Dependence. Resentment. Who owes what to whom – for how long and under what circumstances?

Connecticut’s antiquated alimony laws – like those of many states around the country – are being scrutinized by lawmakers, lawyers, and advocates. Some are committed to updating the laws. Others argue publicly that everything’s fine while admitting privately that the family court system is a travesty. Even public supporters admit that five different judges will render five different decisions based on an identical set of facts. 

Divorce is about the end of a relationship, and alimony is about its continuation beyond the finish line. The relationship is now entirely about money, and the money only goes one way. Recipients may feel they aren’t getting enough, payers that they are paying too much. Few have a kind word for the clogged court system or the lawyers' fees that eat away at family resources.

One of the most fraught alimony issues concerns ongoing payments to ex-spouses who are cohabiting. Because so many more men pay alimony than women, most often it’s men supporting ex-wives and new boyfriends, or boyfriends of many years. Even when payers are resigned to paying an ex-spouse, the equation changes when a new lover moves in. Resignation quickly morphs into resentment. And that spikes if the ex-husband has to support his ex, his children, his ex's boyfriend, and sometimes his children, who might all live in the marital home. But even with no children involved, being forced to support two able-bodied adults is a bitter pill to swallow.

It’s an open secret – or maybe not much of a secret at all – that the new couple don't marry because they would lose the alimony. Sometimes it’s $100 a week, sometimes $100 a day.

You’d think no one would have to swallow such a pill. If the marriage is long over and the recipient is in an established new relationship, the alimony should end, right? Well, no, not exactly. Not in Connecticut.

In Massachusetts, where the state’s 40-year-old alimony laws were just overhauled, cohabitation was updated to reflect 21st century social and economic realities. Alimony in Massachusetts can now be reduced or eliminated if the payer can show that the recipient has “maintained a common household with another person for a continuous period of three months.” (For details, please see the new law on the Mass Alimony Reform website, Sect. 49(d))

When Connecticut legislators considered new alimony provisions earlier this year (Raised Bill No. 5509), they included provisions like those now in place in Massachusetts. Even though a good many family lawyers believe there are problems with the current cohabitation laws, the alimony reform package, including the cohab provisions, died in the Judiciary Committee.

Under current law, alimony payers may try to modify payments if the recipient is cohabiting, but proving it is a nearly impossible standard. The statute for reducing or ending alimony upon a showing of cohabitation, Section 46b-86(b), requires the payer to meet a two-part test. The payer must prove that the couple lives together and that there is a financially supportive relationship between them.

The statute gives judges unbridled discretion in making every decision related to alimony. Even when there is abundant evidence of cohabitation and of a financially interdependent relationship, judges may rule to keep the alimony in place, leading one petitioner to call the courthouse in Danbury, where his return trips to divorce court take place, “the Danbury slaughterhouse.” Instead of his alimony going down, it’s gone up, while his ex receives monthly funds from her boyfriend and “loans” to purchase real estate. Appeals can cost $50,000 – and are often fruitless.

To try to prove cohabitation, payers must often hire private detectives and aggressive lawyers, and spend a fortune on discovery, which is the process of unearthing financial records, credit card bills, tax returns, and deeds and titles to houses, cars, and boats. For nearly everyone involved, this is distasteful in the extreme. It is easy to enlist children to take sides. Yet this is the statutory requirement in Connecticut.

Because the stakes are so high, recipients and their partners are easily tempted to hide resources and the nature and extent of their financial involvement. It’s an open secret that gaming the system is commonplace. A good many people now understand that even when the payer can prove a financially supportive relationship, a judge may still look the other way. Why? I have two suspicions:

1. There’s gender bias in the courts. Many judges are from “the old school,” and believe that women, even those who worked throughout their marriages, should still be “taken care of” by ex-husbands. Perhaps they still believe the out-dated stereotype of divorce: that men leave their wives for younger women and that they should “have to pay.” 

2. Unlike many other states, Connecticut’s alimony laws have no guidelines and include no expectation that a recipient will ever have to become self-sufficient. By contrast, welfare recipients are given limits to being dependent, and child support ends on a date certain. Perhaps if the law imposed the idea of eventual self-sufficiency - with exceptions for special cases - judges could accept it more readily and apply it in more instances.

These are speculations. What’s not speculative is that Connecticut’s cohabitation laws are out-of-date and out-of-touch. They cause unnecessary acrimony for all family members, and they force long-divorced couples into ugly conflict and expense.

CT Alimony Reform, the state’s leading alimony reform group, favors updating the cohabitation laws, to bring sanity, fairness, and common sense to them.

CTAR is holding a free public meeting on  to educate and inform citizens about current alimony laws, about proposals for change, and about how they can become involved in moving our laws and expectations into the 21st century. 

Alimony laws in Massachusetts changed when citizens began to speak out. Eventually, word got out about what really happens in family court. And legislators knew they had to make changes. 

I'm eager to hear from you - publicly or privately - on what you think alimony reform should look like. Please email me at info@ctalimonyreform.com. If you are interested in the issue but can't come to Westport, please contact us and we'll respond. We need your voices to be heard: info@ctalimonyreform.com. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Elizabeth Benedict June 04, 2012 at 03:05 PM
Child support guidelines are reviewed every 4 years by the state legislature. Here's an FAQ about it. I imagine that private citizens can participate in this in some way. This is quite different from alimony, which is under no legislative imperatives to be reviewed. FYI: MA and Hawaii are the only 2 states that have C/S until 23. It's 18 or maybe older - though I think 18 - in nearly all the other states. http://www.cga.ct.gov/2009/rpt/2009-R-0410.htm
Elizabeth Benedict June 04, 2012 at 03:09 PM
PS RE child support: I should qualify my statement above: As of 2 years ago, MA and Hawaii were the only states with C/S going till 23. I have not looked at the surveys in a while. I may be off, but the vast majority of states end C/S at 18, and I believe that all C/S guidelines must be reviewed by the states every several years, because of Federal involvement in the process. Again, there is no such Federal involvement in alimony (except that it's tax deductible/taxable income), so legislatures are under no such pressure to review the laws.
Patrice Fitzgerald June 07, 2012 at 03:22 PM
I congratulate Ms. Benedict on creating the discussion she sought. I agree that it is completely appropriate for lay people to weigh in on legal issues that affect everyone -- I simply wanted to point out that Ms. Benedict did not have a law degree, since I was under the impression that she did. Perhaps that is one of the issues on which we differ... if I were widely engaged in writing articles in the press on a medical question, for example, I would add a statement in my bio or at the end of each opinion article making it clear that I did not have a medical degree. This wide-ranging discussion, which is informative, is covering several different areas of monetary recompense -- a splitting of the assets within a marriage, child support, alimony, and possibly other funds such as pension plans. It's a complicated issue, as has been pointed out. When you think about the law being antiquated, do remember that women still make only three-quarters of what a man does in this country. Women right out of college, with no spouse and no children, having made no choices about lifestyle, still get offered only 77¢ to the dollar a man is offered. There are gender differences, whether we think there should be or not. It will be interesting to see how the issues unfold as same-sex marriage becomes common, and spouses of the same gender divorce.
DON SMEDLY October 04, 2012 at 10:54 PM
People marry as adults that are or should be of making their own decisions regarding their life. If a couple marrys and 1 of the 2 spouces, husband or wife, decides to stop working because of children (joint decision or not), laziness or decided not to further their education or seek career advancement that is not the problem of the other spouce very frankly and most states make it the problem of the other spouce but the courts always seem to make it the other spouces problem. Its simple you go out with what you came in with plus or minus marital assets aquired DURING the marriage only, if there is debt a divorce should not be granted until it is all paid in full, if 1 spouce is not or under employed the divorce should not be final until that spouce is earning a salary enough to meet basic living requirements (aka minimum wage full time). Doing it this way would eliminate BS alimony and the rodeo of attorneys flooding our courts hallways playing "lets make a deal" and porking everyone in their path. And furthermore the court system is the biggest joke and circus when it comes to divorce, all judges on panel should be fired and disbarred for allowing the outcomes i've heard over the years.. The other dog and pony show is child support.. It is one of the most discriminitory systems Ive ever seen or heard of.. Why it it that c child from a wealthy family recieves more dollar wise than one from an average family?? Is the wealthy child worth more??
William Heino Sr. April 11, 2013 at 01:28 PM
Now that Florida, Massachusetts, Colorado and Utah, New Jersey legislators, due to the changing realities of family life, proposed or passed that permanent current alimony obligations be eliminated in alimony reform legislation, it is now time to propose similar alimony reform legislation for disabled veterans, as Nevada, and West Virginia have recently enacted. You may ask why? Because,….. according to law…… = INFORMATIONAL COMMENT STATE COURT JUDGES = 38 USC 5301 Nonassignability and exempt status of benefits. "Payments of benefits due or to become due under any law administered by the Secretary shall not be assignable except to the extent specifically authorized by law,.. a beneficiary shall be exempt from taxation, shall be exempt from the claim of creditors, and shall not be liable to attachment, levy or seizure by or under any legal or equitable process whatever, either before or after receipt by the beneficiary. = “It is well established that disability benefits are a protected property interest and may not be discontinued without due process of law. See Atkins v. Parker, 472 U.S. 115, 128 (1985); Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 332 (1976)” = How is it, that state court judges can arbitrarily and capriciously award as alimony, with the mere wave of a hand waive away a portion of a veteran’s VA disability rated compensation, moneys in the form of disability compensation, the disability rights of a veteran, whose disability rating that maybe determined and factored in as critical? Judgment as if all disabilities are exactly the same? State court judges, are in reality, playing doctor, without medical license or knowledge .. a practice forbidden, providing penalties by law , and border on medical negligence. All without any input, or approval from the Veterans Administration, overstepping those whose authority it belongs, the dedicated VA medical professionals, in the practice of medicine, re-evaluation, and rehabilitation of the veteran. While at the same time violating federal law, 38 USC 5301, 42 USC 1408, and the 14th Amendment. = “Clear and substantial” major damage to federal interests occurs when state court judges make lasting decisions, that seriously impact disabled veterans’ rated compensation and complicate Veterans Administration goals, and responsibilities. Upsetting, by overruling VA medical compensation decisions, which involve many hours of work that VA medical professionals have invested in the medical care, control, follow-up, and rehabilitation of disabled veterans. All this happens with VA complicity, when a state court, arbitrarily is allowed to take away a veterans VA disability compensation in third party alimony awards in violation of….. 38 USC 5301. 42 USC § 407 - Assignment of benefits, carries similar language. = Where is it written, the VA authority, when a state judge can arbitrarily overrule the VA, the VA medical doctors and other medical professionals’ that determine a veterans’ medical rating compensation? His future now without the compensation that was by law assured? Tax payer monies mandated by Congress purposely, as veterans service compensation for injuries received, life altering as they are, now being diverted purposely by state courts to healthy third parties in many cases, in a determined and engaging violation of the law. = Where is it written? Where is the eagerness of state legislators to extend this proposal and eliminate veterans disability compensation from alimony? Opportunity knocks, do the right thing and fight for your disabled veterans.

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