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My Wife is Living With a Male Renter - Does This Affect My SUPPORT OBLIGATION?

Q. If my wife is living with a male renter, and I suspect they are boyfriend-girlfriend, does this affect the amount of spousal and child support that I have to pay?


A. The supported party's cohabitation with a person of the opposite sex gives rise to a rebuttable presumption affecting the burden of proof of decreased need for spousal support. FC § 4323(a)(1). It has no impact on child support obligations, however.

FC § 4323 states:

(a)(1) Except as otherwise agreed to by the parties in writing, there is a rebuttable presumption, affecting the burden of proof, of decreased need for spousal support if the supported party is cohabiting with a person of the opposite sex. Upon a determination that circumstances have changed, the court may modify or terminate the spousal support as provided for in Chapter 6 (commencing with Section 3650) of Part 1.

(2) Holding oneself out to be the husband or wife of the person with whom one is cohabiting is not necessary to constitute cohabitation as the term is used in this subdivision.

(b) The income of a supporting spouse's subsequent spouse or nonmarital partner shall not be considered when determining or modifying spousal support.

(c) Nothing in this section precludes later modification or termination of spousal support on proof of change of circumstances.

As stated in Marriage of Schroeder (1987) 192 Cal.App.3d 1154, 238 Cal.Rptr. 12,

"the policy underlying section 4323 is a legislative acknowledgment that cohabitation may reduce the needs of the supported spouse. The arrangement between Wife and Lara elevates form over substance. By receiving reimbursement by way of 'gifts,' Wife's cash needs for support purposes appear unchanged despite cohabitation. While cohabitants are at liberty to deal with each other as they see fit, their 'contract must be fair and reasonable with respect to the rights of [the] supporting spouse.' The trial court here failed to recognize that the allocation of expenses between Wife and Lara undermines the statute and acts to Husband's detriment.

The record strongly indicates Wife's needs have decreased as a result of cohabitation. We remand to the trial court for a factual determination of the extent of her reduced need, with due consideration for the value of the benefits received by her, as well as the value of the benefits conferred upon Lara."

Schroeder involved a post judgment modification of a permanent support order by the payor, not an initial pendente lite request by the supported spouse. The evidence was the former wife had been living with a man of the opposite sex for 18 months, that he didn't pay rent, that he was regularly employed, that he did not contribute to utilities, but that he did contribute to joint vacations. The appellate court found those facts to strongly suggest a cohabitation. Even then, the issue on remand was not a termination of the support obligation but a determination of the value of the benefits incurred by the former wife which might reduce her needs.

Cohabitation has been loosely defined as not necessarily holding oneself out to be Husband and Wife, but is more than a simple roommate or "boarding arrangement." There must be a showing of a sexual, romantic or at least a "homemaker-companion" relationship. Marriage of Regnery (1989) 214 CA3d 1367, 263 CR 243.

Marriage of Geraci (2006) 144 Cal.App.4th 1278 reversed a trial court failure to consider the effect of an admitted cohabitation lasting several years with the following comments:

The court's judgment also does not take into consideration the evidence Jane had been cohabiting since the parties separated in 2000, despite John's requests for findings on the issue. Section 4323 states "there is a rebuttal presumption, affecting the burden of proof, of decreased need for spousal support if the supported party is cohabiting with a person of the opposite sex. . . . "Cohabitation may reduce the need for spousal support because 'sharing a household gives rise to economies of scale. [Citation.] Also, more importantly, the cohabitant's income may be available to the obligee spouse.' (In re Marriage of Schroeder (1987) 192 Cal.App.3d 1154, 1159 [238 Cal.Rptr. 12].)"[32] "[T]he Legislature created the presumption . . . based on thinking that cohabitation . . . creates a change of circumstance so tied in with the payment of spousal support as to be significant enough by itself to require a re-examination of whether such need for support continues in such a way that it still should be charged to the prior spouse." [Italics added].

* * *

At trial, however, Jane testified she had no intention of marrying him. Jane's father, by contrast, testified he hoped they would soon marry. The evidence showed her boyfriend supplied Jane with housing, with a leased car and a credit card in her name for her use. Jane testified she was supposed to pay him back for all her expenditures, including the equivalent of $1,000 a month for rent, whenever she became financially able to do so. She testified she then owed her boyfriend more than $30,000 in back rent, credit card and other debt. According to Jane's evidence, she contributed to the household by providing domestic services.

The foregoing is substantial and material evidence Jane was cohabiting within the meaning of section 4323 and might have a lesser need for spousal support than the court awarded had it considered this circumstance. However, there is nothing in the record to indicate the court fairly considered Jane's cohabitation when determining the type and amount of spousal support to award her.

In Marriage of Bower (2002) 96 Cal.App.4th 893,117 Cal.Rptr.2d 520 there were two permanent support modification hearings filed by the payor husband, one held in 1997 and the second in 2000. At the 1997 hearing the evidence was that the Wife was sharing expenses and living full time at a residence with a man described as a 'roommate.' The Bower court noted that the Husband had been wise in not appealing that order. However, by the time of the second application over three years later in 2000, there was evidence that she was sharing at least one bank account with her "roommate," and she even stipulated she was cohabiting.

Under those circumstances, together with evidence of an increased income from her employment, it was not an abuse of discretion to reduce the Wife's spousal support and then terminate it at the end of one year.

Bower and those cases cited herein regarding cohabitation are dealing with modifications of Permanent Spousal Support orders. They all are based upon the "two can live more cheaply than one" theory or upon actual expenses of the supported party being regularly paid for by the cohabitant beyond loans and gifts. There is no reported case that upholds a trial court refusal to provide spousal support at the temporary hearing stage. However, I suspect most courts will apply the presumption there as well.

The philosophy underlying the cohabitation statute is that parties who share a household and live in a meretricious relationship should not benefit by continuing to receive spousal support without consideration of the reduced need this sharing produces.

Finding cohabitation just allows for the aid of a statutory presumption to assist in the presentation of factual evidence. The effect is the same without the presumption even for mere roommates, as those contributions to the obligee's living expenses may also support a factual finding sufficient to modify spousal support since rent is income.

Nonetheless, cohabitation is offensive to some judges and they be willing to terminate the spousal support obligation instead of merely reducing it.

Note that once you prove a cohabitation the burden of proof shifts to the supported party to show that they still need support. That is their problem, not yours. Nonetheless, if you can show a substantial reduction or the end of any need for alimony you would be well advised to present that evidence.

Finally, you are not entitled to know the income of the other party as new-mate income cannot be considered by the Courts.

For domestic partnerships, even though the statute speaks in terms of opposite sex couples it is highly unlikely that a trial court would not reduce or terminate partner support with a same-sex couple where male former partner is cohabiting with a male and so on. Since 2005 the California Family Code is to be interpreted as applying equally to same sex couples who are in a legally recognized relationship.

If a gay man (as opposed to bi-sexual male) is now living with a female should the opposite sex presumption be applied? The answer would seem to turn on whether the relationship is romantic and/or intimate and not on the identity of genders. Similarly, if a former wife is now living with a female roommate and it can be established that relationship is intimate, then the same reasoning as in the above cases will likely apply. We await appellate court pronouncements on these interesting questions.

[Note, four years later, in July, 2014, Family Code section 4323 was amended to strike the "person of the opposite sex" language and replacing with the phrase "nonmarital partners." - TWA]

Thurman W. Arnold III
September 16, 2010

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