At some point after divorce, former spouses often look for someone new to love. Those new relationships, while emotionally rewarding, may come at a price. Specifically, when a former spouse receiving alimony under a divorce decree cohabitates with another person in a relationship resembling marriage, that cohabitation could result in the reduction or loss of the recipient’s future alimony.
Georgia’s live-in lover law allows a court to modify an alimony award based on the recipient’s “meretricious relationship” after divorce, as follows in relevant part:
"Subsequent to a final judgment of divorce awarding periodic payment of alimony for the support of a spouse, the voluntary cohabitation of such former spouse with a third party in a meretricious relationship shall also be grounds to modify provisions made for periodic payments of permanent alimony for the support of the former spouse. As used in this subsection, the word ‘cohabitation’ means dwelling together continuously and openly in a meretricious relationship with another person, regardless of the sex of the other person."(1)
The statute rests upon the proposition that "... a party who voluntarily elects to enter into a relationship similar in nature to marriage may be subject to having alimony benefits reduced or in fact terminated."(2)
Appellate courts have created a two-part inquiry to determine whether the live-in lover law applies to a given case. First, a trial court or jury must find that the alimony recipient voluntarily cohabitated with another person after the divorce, meaning that the couple “[dwelled] together continuously and openly.”(3) If the trial court/jury finds that open and continuous cohabitation occurred, it then assesses whether cohabitation was also meretricious.(4)
Continuously dwelling together for purposes of cohabitation must go beyond periodic, physical interludes of sleeping over at someone else’s abode or sharing a residence. The couple must dwell together in a continuous manner without interruption to qualify as cohabitating.(5) Residing together on weekends alone will not suffice to establish cohabitation.(6) Ordinarily, a trial will be needed to determine whether the frequency and duration of shared residence constitutes cohabitation under the Georgia statute.(7) Yet, where no evidence exists that the alimony recipient and his/her live-in-lover dwelled together consistently, a court can rule out cohabitation without conducting a trial.(8)
Dwelling together must be open as well as continuous to establish cohabitation under the live-in-lover law.(9) In that regard, concealing a shared living arrangement from one’s ex-spouse, rather than from the world at large, will not prevent a finding of open cohabitation.(10)
If cohabitation is found, then the existence of a meretricious relationship must be determined. “Meretricious” cohabitation within the meaning of O.C.G.A. § 19-6-19(b) requires either: “proof of sexual intercourse between the former spouse and the third party although no proof is offered tending to establish that the former spouse received from, gave to, or shared with the third party expenses of their cohabitation;” or “proof that the former spouse received from, gave to, or shared with the third party expenses of their cohabitation although no proof is offered tending to establish sexual intercourse between the former spouse and the third party.”(11)
Upon the finding of a meretricious relationship, a court/jury may reduce or eliminate future alimony obligations; the court/jury is not required to do so, however.(12)
(1) O.C.G.A. § 19-6-19(b).
(2) Sims v. Sims, 245 Ga. 680, 682, 266 S.E.2d 493 (1980).
(3) O.C.G.A. § 19-6-19(b). See also Reiter v. Reiter, 258 Ga. 101, 365 S.E.2d 826 (1988).
(4) See O.C.G.A. § 19-6-19(b) and Donaldson v. Donaldson, 262 Ga. 231, 231-232, 416 S.E.2d 514 (1992).
(5) Schaffeld v. Schaffeld, A18A1947, *3(3) (Ga. Ct. App., March 7, 2019); See also Shapiro v. Shapiro, 259 Ga. 405, 383 S.E.2d 134 (1989); Reiter, supra, 258 Ga. at 102; and Daniels v. Daniels, 258 Ga. 791, 374 S.E.2d 735 (1989).
(6) Schaffeld, supra.
(7) See, e.g., Hathcock v. Hathcock, 246 Ga. 233, 271 S.E.2d 147 (1980).
(8) See, e.g., Shapiro, supra, 259 Ga. 405.
(9) O.C.G.A. § 19-6-19(b); and Reiter, supra, 258 Ga. at 102.
(10) See Provenzano v. Jones, 805 S.E.909, 911 (Ga. Ct. App. 2017).
(11) See Donaldson, supra, 262 Ga. at 231-232, citing Hathcock, supra, 249 Ga. at 76(3).
(12) See Berman v. Berman, 253 Ga. 298, 299(1), 319 S.E.2d 846 (1984).