T.L.H. v. M.H.
This unpublished decision reinforces a lesson all matrimonial attorneys know but still sometimes fail to abide by: Draft your marital settlement agreements carefully. The parties divorced after a 20-year marriage. Their MSA provided that the husband pay the wife weekly alimony and that the alimony payments would increase when the wife was forced to leave the marital home due its foreclosure. The agreement went on to say that alimony would terminate:
[U]pon the death of either party, or the marriage or cohabitation of [plaintiff]. The term "cohabitation[,"] in addition to its meaning as construed by New Jersey courts, shall also incorporate the scenario if [plaintiff] should take up residence with any family members (other than the children of the parties) or friends.
Upon being served with a sheriff’s sale notice, the wife moved in with her sister. Husband stopped paying alimony in accordance with the above provision in the MSA and the wife filed a motion to enforce litigant’s rights. The wife argued that she negotiated a higher rate of alimony after being evicted because she knew her living expenses would be higher. The husband in turn argued that he negotiated the above provision because he suspected she would move in with a family member to save money. At issue was the parties’ interpretation of “cohabitation.” The wife argued that it meant more than just living with someone else, it meant being financially supported by that person.
The trial court agreed with the wife’s interpretation of the word under the laws of the state and agreed that she was “not co-habitating in the legal sense of the word.” However, the lower court found that since the agreement changed the definition of “cohabitation” and was entered into freely and voluntarily, that the wife had to be held to the agreement. The Appellate Division affirmed, noting that settlements are highly favored in our jurisprudence, and the terms were unambiguous and fair under the circumstances.