Could Living With a Friend Cut Off Spousal Support?

In the recent case of Brennan v. Albertson, Sheila Brennan had her spousal support (also referred to as alimony) terminated when she was found by a Court to have been living with a partner in a relationship analogous to marriage for more than one year. What made the case unique was that Ms. Brennan’s partner was female — and there was no evidence that the two had any sort of romantic or sexual relationship.

In Virginia law, a typical spousal support award terminates upon one of the following things occurring:

1) the death of either party;

2) the remarriage of the recipient spouse; or

3) if it is proven that the recipient spouse has been habitually cohabiting with another person in a relationship analogous to marriage for one year or more.

While death and remarriage are pretty straightforward, cohabitation is often far less so.

Brennan met her friend, Lisa Baker, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in 2006, around the time Brennan was going through divorce proceedings with her then-husband, Paul Albertson. Shortly after Brennan and her husband divorced, she purchased a large home with a significant amount of her own money, and Baker moved in with her. Baker paid the mortgage and utility bills. They ate meals together, watched each other’s children, attended extended family functions together, and contributed financially to each other’s children. However, they maintained separate bank accounts, car titles, and had no romantic or sexual relationship. They characterized their relationship as being very close friends, and “like sisters.”

No single factor can determine whether individuals are cohabiting in a relationship analogous to marriage. As a result, cases involving cohabitation are highly fact-specific, as was this case. After a thorough review of the evidence, the trial court terminated support, holding essentially that the financial and other support provided each party constituted a relationship analogous to marriage. The trial court was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

What does this mean moving forward?

The Court of Appeals took great pains to paint the case at issue as one-of-a-kind, involving a rare set of circumstances that was not likely to be the basis for an explosion of other, similar cases. The Court also specifically exempted people living with family members as being eligible to have their support cut off, as a relationship between family members “differs intrinsically” from a relationship between unrelated persons. It remains to be seen whether this case will be a “one-hit wonder,” or whether it will have a larger impact across the domestic relations field in Virginia.

If you have questions about spousal support in Virginia, or whether cohabitation may be applicable to your situation, call the experienced Fairfax Family Law attorneys at Curran|Moher P.C. at (571) 328-5020.