When you are negotiating a separation agreement, it is important to “sweat the small stuff,” or more advisably, retain an experienced Maryland divorce attorney to “sweat the small stuff” for you. Each detail in your agreement is binding, and small differences can have large impacts down the road in terms of things like alimony payments, child support, or other financial outcomes. With an experienced attorney working for you, you can make a fully informed and knowledgeable decision before you sign off on that settlement agreement.
One recent case focusing on a settlement agreement was the alimony dispute between Jonathan and Andrea, who finalized their divorce in 2011. During the divorce process, the couple worked out a Separation and Property Settlement Agreement. The agreement covered alimony and child support, among other things. The alimony provision in the agreement called for Jonathan to pay Andrea alimony for eight years (ending in December 2019). The alimony obligation could end earlier if any one of several events happened. Those included Jonathan’s death, Andrea’s death, Andrea’s remarriage, or Andrea’s cohabitation.
By the spring of 2016, Jonathan was back in court, seeking to have his alimony obligation terminated, along with reimbursement for some months of alimony that he’d already paid. Jonathan’s argument was that Andrea had been cohabitating with a man since August 2015, if not earlier. Based on the evidence the spouses presented, the trial judge concluded that Andrea was living with the man and that the two were in a long-term intimate relationship.
Despite that evidence, the trial judge concluded that Jonathan did not have sufficient proof of cohabitation and refused to eliminate the alimony obligation. The husband appealed, but he lost again. Why was he unsuccessful? To the untrained eye, Jonathan’s proof of intimacy and co-living might seem to offer a “slam dunk” case. However, just as with many types of legal contracts, as the saying goes, the “devil is in the details.” When Jonathan and Andrea worked out their separation agreement, both sides agreed to language that said that “cohabitation” would be analyzed using the definition provided in a 1996 Court of Appeals case named Gordon v. Gordon.
That case said that there were several factors that went into analyzing cohabitation. The Gordon ruling provided a list of five things but also explained that those were not the only things that lower courts could use to assess cohabitation. The list from the Gordon case included a shared residence, a long-term intimate or romantic relationship, sharing of assets or bank accounts, mutual contribution to household expenses, and whether or not the pair held themselves out to the community as an established couple.
Jonathan had proof of the first two factors, but his evidence fell short on the other three criteria. Based upon those shortcomings and the spouses’ mutual agreement to use the Gordon case’s rules for analyzing cohabitation, the husband simply didn’t have enough to establish that the wife was cohabitating under that set of factors. Had the parameters of defining “cohabitation” in his settlement agreement been different, Jonathan might have reached a more favorable result.
If you are involved in negotiating a separation agreement, it is important to make sure that you are safeguarding your interests sufficiently. Experienced Maryland alimony attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has been helping spouses with these and other challenges for many years. To find out how this office can assist you, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
More blog posts:
When a Settlement Agreement Will (and Won’t) Block a Spouse from Using the Maryland Courts to Obtain a Modification of Alimony, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, Dec. 2, 2017
Principles of Contract Law Govern Many Aspects of Family Law Proceedings, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, Dec. 15, 2015