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Alimony for Cohabiters: A Bitter Pill?

Should alimony payments keep going to ex-spouses living with new partners? Many feel that 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 - judge 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.

MPJP June 04, 2012 at 12:44 AM
Sarah, In CT you can't live on $50,000 as a single mother with ONLY child support. Yes there are mothers who are forced to do just that. And Yes those mothers are completely stressed out. Child support does not keep up with inflation, especially the price of oil and gas. I know mothers who have skipped meals so their kids could eat. Those are the mothers who do not have parents that are able to supplement their shelter expenses and they do not get alimony from their X. There are a lot of mothers struggling to make ends meet and the idea of saving for when they are elderly is not a possibility. You mentioned that the elderly are one of the biggest groups using food stamps. That group is going to grow if these single mothers do not save for their retirement which is impossible to do on $50,000/yr income. These same mothers were living a life of upper middle class (house with swimming pool)before their divorce but now they barely can make their rent and provide a home for their children. The mothers that are making it in that income bracket, are either receiving alimony or getting supplements from their parents.
David Conway June 04, 2012 at 01:13 AM
There are a lot of fathers and mothers struggling to make ends meet, many after having lived a life of upper middle class, that is an economic reality for almost everyone. So why would you want to continue to support laws that keep divorced couples in court for a lifetime of litigation and continue to sap their few remaining resources.
MPJP June 04, 2012 at 01:54 PM
Elizabeth, You can't reform alimony without reforming child support. They go hand and hand. Unallocated alimony is combined alimony and child support. Our child support guidelines end at age 18 while children are not self sufficient. Back in the 1950's they may have been able to get a factory job but those jobs are long gone. Child Support is more outdated than alimony but no one wants to talk about that. That is the real taboo. Children are not even allowed to have a drink of alcohol in this state until age 21. In MA their child support goes until age 23, why doesn't ours? If you only reform alimony and not child support then CT will have the worst divorce laws out of all the states. In addition the dollar amount of child support is way too low. It does not provide for a suitable home for the children, a basic need and it should. And it does not keep up with inflation (gas,oil) prices. You are going to have a lot of angry mothers out here if you reform one and not the other. Unlike MA our child support laws are WAY OUTDATED.
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 03:20 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.

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