Separation Agreements-Why the Details Matter
In a recent Maryland Court of Appeals case, Rose v. Rose, the parties entered into a Separation Agreement which resolved all of their outstanding issues, including alimony. The Agreement provided that Jonathan would pay non-modifiable alimony for a term of eight years beginning January 1, 2012, and ending December 31, 2019. The Agreement further provided that Jonathan’s alimony obligation would terminate “upon the earlier of (a) Jonathan’s death; (b) Andrea’s death; (c) Andrea’s remarriage; (d) Andrea’s cohabitation (as defined by Gordon v. Gordon, 675 A.2d 540 (1996)), or [(e)] December 31, 2019.” On December 14, 2011, a Judgment of Absolute Divorce was entered which incorporated but did not merge the parties Agreement.
In 2016, Jonathan filed a Motion to Terminate Alimony based on the terms of the parties’ Agreement alleging that Andrea was cohabitating with a man as defined by Gordon and therefore alimony should terminate. Both sides presented evidence as to the factors courts may consider as established in Gordon 342 Md. at 308-09:
1. establishment of a common residence;
2. long-term intimate or romantic involvement;
3. shared assets or common bank accounts;
4. joint contribution to household expenses; and
5. recognition of the relationship by the community.
The Gordon court emphasized that the list was non-exhaustive and that no one factor should serve as an absolute prerequisite for finding cohabitation exists. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court determined that the evidence was insufficient to establish cohabitation and denied Jonathan’s request to terminate alimony.
On appeal, the Court considered the fact that the trial court noted that the parties expressly incorporated Gordon’s definition of cohabitation as one of the terminating events for the payment of alimony and that the trial court considered each of those factors. The trial court found evidence as to the first two factors; establishment of a common residence and a long term intimate relationship. However, the trial court also found that there were no shared assets, common bank accounts, or joint contributions to the household. Additionally, there was no evidence as to how the two were recognized by the community. The trial court judge stated that “I’m not convinced that there was cohabitation” as defined in Gordon and “I just don’t believe that there was a de facto marriage here.” The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court’s factual findings were not clearly erroneous or arbitrary and affirmed the decision denying Jonathan’s request to terminate alimony.
Because the parties agreed to the definition of cohabitation as defined by Gordon, the court had no option but to apply the factors as set forth therein. If the Agreement did not tie the definition to the Gordon case, the end result may have been different. This is why details matter. It is important to have an experienced attorney such as Geraldine Hess and Hess Family Law when negotiating a settlement so you can make sure you fully understand the terms of your Agreement.