Historically, when courts granted spousal support (alimony) in a Michigan divorce decree, the recipient could count on receiving monthly checks until remarrying — or at least until the agreement’s stated time period came to an end. Of course, times have changed in many ways.
Today, a large percentage of women who might have once received alimony are now fully capable of supporting themselves. Furthermore, many couples now live together or cohabitate without marrying, either because they prefer a more casual lifestyle or hope to avoid some of a formal marriage’s added legal responsibilities.
It’s now not unusual for 21st century divorce decrees to state that any spousal support awarded can be terminated — if the recipient begins cohabitating with another adult in an intimate relationship, especially when there’s just one shared residence and finances are intermingled.
The Confusing Standards Applied in Michigan’s Smith and Herrmann Cases
A. The Smith Case. When Betty Lee and William Jeffery Smith divorced in 1999, they had been married for 17 years and had raised five children together. In the JOD (judgment of divorce), Betty Lee was awarded $3,500 a month in spousal support. However, the decree stated that her ex-husband could stop making those support payments if the former Mrs. Smith ever started cohabitating with a “non-related male.”
Less than six years later, Mr. Smith petitioned to stop the payments. He claimed that Betty Lee Smith was now cohabitating with her boyfriend, Philip J. Walsh II. The trial court ruled against Mr. Smith and in 2008, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling. The courts decided that Betty Lee Smith and Mr. Walsh were not regularly cohabitating. Instead, they believed the couple was in a long-term, committed (monogamous) dating relationship. The court specifically recognized the fact that Mr. Walsh maintained a separate home in Georgia and did not keep any personal belongings in Betty Lee Smith’s home.
In its ruling, the Michigan Court of Appeals identified three key factors (set forth below) that must be considered when trying to determine if a couple is legally cohabiting together.
1. To what extent is the couple regularly sharing a common residence?
2. What is the exact nature of the couple’s relationship?
3. What types of financial arrangements have the two people entered into regarding their common and separate bills?
Since this couple did not regularly live together on any type of continuous basis and did not share any bank accounts, the courts decided that they were not legally cohabitating with one another.
B. The Herrmann case. When Ruth and Glen Herrmann divorced, their decree required Glen to pay his ex-wife $625 a month for five years, starting in early 2010. However, the divorce decree indicated that Mr. Herrmann could stop paying spousal support to Ruth if she began cohabitating with an unrelated male.
Mr. Herrmann later asked a trial court to terminate his obligation to pay spousal support since his ex-wife had begun living with another man. The trial court ruled in Ruth Herrmann’s favor. However, the Michigan Appeals Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling in part — and reversed the part concerning the spousal support. The higher court ruled in late 2012 that Glen Herrmann no longer had to pay spousal support because his ex-wife was legally cohabitating with Ronald Cluly.
The facts in this case are a bit unusual, especially regarding the level of commitment between the two parties. While they acknowledged the sexual aspect of their relationship, they did not seem interested in ever getting married or living together on a permanent basis. However, Ruth Herrmann clearly indicated that she was financially dependent upon Mr. Cluly in some ways, in spite of the fact that she was still holding down a paying job. She also said she initially moved in with him for financial reasons.
Although these two people lived exclusively in Mr. Cluly’s home together, they did not share any bank accounts. Furthermore, they each did their own grocery shopping and fixed their own meals. Nevertheless, the appellate court said true cohabitation existed and based its ruling on the three factors examined in the Smith case referenced above. Mr. Herrmann was told that he no longer had to pay his ex-wife any further spousal support payments.
Conclusions Regarding Michigan’s Standards for Determining Cohabitation
Upon reading these two opinions, you may come away thinking that the three key factors may not have been properly applied to the Herrmann case. However, what is clear is that anyone receiving spousal support payments in Michigan that can be terminated on cohabitation had better think twice about sharing a common residence with an intimate “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” especially if (1) the two people ever help each other out financially – or (2) hold themselves out to others as being in some type of committed, long-term relationship. This type of cohabitation can definitely result in the termination of spousal support payments – even in unusual relationships like the one present in the Herrmann case.