Facts: When the parties divorced in 2010, their Marital Dissolution Agreement (“MDA”) obligated Husband to pay alimony to Wife. According to the MDA, “This spousal support will end after the designated 12 year period agreed upon or upon the Wife’s death, remarriage or cohabitation with another man.”
In December 2011, Husband filed a petition to terminate his alimony obligation because he alleged Wife was cohabitating with another man, Mr. Brown. Husband also stopped paying because he believed Wife’s cohabitation relieved him of any obligation to make future alimony payments.
At the hearing, Wife testified that she had an intimate relationship with Mr. Brown and that he had stayed overnight at her apartment on numerous occasions (two nights a week on average), but she emphatically denied that she lived with him or that he or she had been supporting the other.
Mr. Brown admitted having an intimate relationship with Wife and that he stayed overnight at Wife’s apartment on numerous occasions before she was evicted from her apartment in January 2012 for failure to pay the rent. Since her eviction in January 2012, Wife had been homeless, sleeping outdoors at various locations. Mr. Brown stated that while he is in a romantic relationship with Wife, he has no plans to live with or to get married to her In fact, Mr. Brown stated that he is married, although not living with his wife, and that he had no intentions of getting a divorce.
The trial court found the evidence insufficient to prove the kind of relationship that would constitute cohabitation, specifically that of a “husband and wife” type of relationship or “partners for life” relationship. The trial court concluded that Wife had not cohabited with Mr. Brown, denied the petition to terminate alimony and entered a monetary judgment against Husband for an alimony arrearage.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
A marital dissolution agreement is a contract and is subject to the rules governing the construction of contracts. Unless specifically defined, the terms must be taken and understood in their plain, ordinary, and popular sense. Because cohabit was not defined in the MDA, the Court examined some dictionaries.
Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines “cohabit” as follows:
1: to live together as or as if as husband and wife (without formal marriage);
2a: to live together or in company; b: to be intimately together or in company.
Black’s Law Dictionary provides another definition for “cohabitation”:
To live together as husband and wife. The mutual assumption of those marital rights, duties and obligations which are usually manifested by married people, including but not necessarily dependent on sexual relations.
Based upon the foregoing analysis, the Court concluded:
[W]e have concluded, as the trial court did, that the term cohabitation with another man requires more than an intimate or sexual relationship and more than spending the night on several occasions with another man. The term cohabitation with another man additionally requires something akin to the mutual assumption of duties and obligations that are customarily manifested by a married couple or life partners.
After further concluding that the evidence preponderated in favor of the trial court’s findings, the Court affirmed the trial court’s denial of Husband’s petition to terminate alimony and the judgment for the arrearage.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.
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