The Michigan Court of Appeals released an opinion on October 16, 2012 discussing how a trial court should interpret a provision in the parties' judgment of divorce that the alimony obligation is terminated upon "cohabitation [of the obligee] with an unrelated male." The court had previously ruled on a similar case [Smith v Smith, 278 Mich App 198; 748 NW2d 258 (2008)], finding the term “cohabitation” to be “unclear” or “equally susceptible to more than one meaning.”
The Smith panel established a "totality-of-the-circumstances test" trial courts should consider when determining whether "cohabitation" exists that justifies termination of an alimony obligation. Specifically, the Smith panel gave examples of three types of evidence trial courts should consider when determining whether a person is "cohabiting" with another within the meaning of the alimony provisions in the judgment. According to Smith, the trial court should examine the following issues:
- The nature of the couple’s living arrangements and the extent to which they share a common residence.
- The nature of the couple’s relationship
- The couple’s financial arrangements.
Family law is such a challenging and interesting area of practice because each case turns on the unique and specific set of facts involved. No cookie cutter approach should be taken. Whether the court is determining child custody, child support, spousal support, property distribution, or other issues, the statutes and case law establish various factors the trial court should consider when deciding a case. The trial court needs to apply the applicable law to the specific facts of the case at bar in order to reach the right decision.
When deciding how to approach your own case regarding the issue whether cohabitation will terminate a spousal support obligation, it is useful to see how the court of appeals has applied the law to the unique facts of Smith v Smith and Hermann v Hermann.