The termination of alimony largely depends on the terms set forth regarding duration, and whether the alimony award is put in an unincorporated separation agreement (contract) or a court order (judgment, consent order, or incorporated separation agreement).
Alimony that is provided for in a court order, whether this is awarded in an order pursuant to trial, a consent order, or a separation agreement that has been approved by the court and incorporated into a divorce decree or other order is court ordered alimony. Thus even if you agree to alimony in a consensual, contractual separation agreement, if that separation agreement is later incorporated and made part of a divorce decree, it transforms from a contract to an order. Court ordered alimony, regardless of the terms of the separation agreement, terminates statutorily upon the death of either the supporting or the dependent spouse, and also upon the remarriage or cohabitation of the dependent spouse. N.C.G.S. 50-16.9(b). So, when there is an order for alimony in place, alimony terminates upon (1) death of either spouse, (2) remarriage of dependent spouse, OR (3) cohabitation of dependent spouse.
Cohabitation is statutorily defined as … “cohabitation means the act of two adults dwelling together continuously and habitually in a private heterosexual relationship, even if this relationship is not solemnized by marriage, or a private homosexual relationship. Cohabitation is evidenced by the voluntary mutual assumption of those marital rights, duties, and obligations which are usually manifested by married people, and which include, but are not necessarily dependent on, sexual relations.” To determine whether a couple has voluntarily assumed the rights, duties, and obligations of married people, the trial court must consider the totality of the circumstances. The primary policy in making cohabitation, not just remarriage, grounds for termination is the economic impact on the dependent spouse. It would not be fair, in other words, for a dependent spouse to be in and continue in a relationship where he or she may enjoy an economic impact from the relationship (i.e. new romantic interest contributes income) without the status of being married. A supporting spouse cannot automatically cease paying alimony due to the dependent spouse’s cohabitation or remarriage without a court order terminating the alimony.
Examples of when a court has found that NO cohabitation exists:
The courts seem to hold that parties are cohabitating when they are in a (1) mutually exclusive dating and sexual relationship; (2) consistently, if not exclusively spend overnights together, or have a residence together; (3) hold themselves out in the same ways as a married couple would; (4) go on dates, travel together, keep clothes and toiletries at each other’s homes, and provide care (if applicable) for each other’s children; and (5) mix finances and contribute financially to each other, pay bills and contribute to household expenses together, and maintain joint bank accounts.
When, on the other hand, an unincorporated separation agreement is involved, the terms of termination of alimony provided for in the contract dictate. Thus if no term in the unincorporated separation agreement provides for termination of alimony, it may continue indefinitely. A contractual support obligation of alimony in an unincorporated separation agreement, for example, that provided that alimony should be paid to the dependent spouse to support her while she obtained a college degree continued even after the death of the supporting spouse. The death of the supporting spouse did not end his obligation to support the dependent spouse until she graduated from college and his estate was required to provide the alimony payments to the dependent spouse. See White v. Graham, 72 N.C. App. 436, 325 S.E. 2d 497 (1985).
To contrast against court ordered alimony, while cohabitation will result in the termination of a support order entered by a court, either as the result of a trial or by entry of a consent order, cohabitation will not terminate a support obligation arising from an unincorporated separation agreement unless so specified in the contract. See Jones v. Jones, 144 N.C. App. 595, 548 S.E. 2d 565 (2001).
Unless provided otherwise in a separation agreement, however, reconciliation between parties who remain married may terminate an obligation to pay alimony, even if contracted for in an unincorporated separation agreement. Reconciliation, or the resumption of marital relations, is defined as the voluntary renewal of the husband and wife relationship, as shown by the totality of the circumstances. N.C.G.S. 52-10.2. To reconcile, there must typically be substantial objective indicia of cohabitation. Reconciliation did not occur, for example, in a case where the husband and wife spend four hours a day, six days per week together, in the former marital home, having dinner together, visiting with the minor children, and having occasional sex together because the husband and wife maintained separate residences, did not share chores or household responsibilities, did not hold themselves out as husband and wife, did not indicate to others that their problems had been resolved, and did not indicate that they desired to terminate their separation. Fletcher v. Fletcher, 123 N.C. App. 744, 474 S.E. 2d 802 (1996). The Court of Appeals has held, on the other hand, that reconciliation has occurred when the husband and wife lived together for four months following the execution of a separation agreement, had sexual relations, filed a joint tax return, and held themselves out as husband and wife. See Schultz v. Schultz, 107 N.C. App. 366, 420 S.E.2d 186 (1992).
In a nutshell, if alimony is court order, it will terminate upon (1) death of either party, (2) remarriage of dependent spouse, or (3) cohabitation of dependent spouse. If alimony is in an unincorporated separation agreement, it will terminate upon the terms of that contract, if ever; unless the parties remain married and resume marital relations.