Alimony modification based upon the recipient’s new, live-in relationship status has been a troubling issue that has divided Florida’s District Courts of Appeal. Disagreement at the intermediate appellate level means that the Supreme Court of Florida will eventually be called upon to resolve this legal matter.
The questions surrounding this issue date back to 2005, when the Legislature passed the Supportive Relationship Statute, §61.14(1)(b), Fla. Stat, allowing for modification of alimony based upon the existence of a “supportive relationship…between the [alimony] obligee and a person with whom the obligee resides.” While the statute did not define the term “supportive relationship”, it listed 11 factors – nine of which were purely economic in nature – to be considered in determining whether or not a supportive relationship exists. The District Courts of Appeal are divided over whether a supportive relationship can only be shown by evidence of economic support by the person with whom the obligee resides or whether a supportive relationship can be established by evidence of a valuable non-economic support.
A key case – Murphy v. Murphy, Case No. 3D11–1604, 2012 WL 4511622 (October 3, 2012), is now under enbanc consideration by the Third District Court of Appeal following a split panel decision. I represent the former wife in the appeal of a Monroe County Circuit Court decision to reduce the alimony obligation of her former spouse, due to her current monogamous, romantic relationship. The court determined that her relationship is supportive even though she received no financial support from one Llerena, the person with whom she resided, and he did not support her financially.
The Murphys had entered into a marital settlement agreement with a total support obligation of $4,200 a month. In 2008, Mrs. Murphy began an exclusive relationship with Mr. Llerena, who moved in a year later. He contributed $150 per month and did some household chores, while working full-time. The trial court found that Llerena’s contribution did not even cover his food and found no evidence that former wife’s expenses had been reduced by Llerena’s contributions. The trial court found that a supportive relationship existed because Llerena and former wife had a personal relationship similar to a married couple. Based on this determination, the trial court reduced former husband’s alimony obligation by $700 to $3,500 a month.
The case was appealed to the District Court of Appeal, Third District where the panel majority rejected the trial court’s decision. Senior Judge Alan R. Schwartz writing for the majority wrote, “reviewing our sibling courts’ applications of section 61.14(1)(b), we find not a single instance where a supportive relationship was found in the absence of some form of economic support by the third party cohabitant to the recipient spouse.”
However, Judge Leslie B. Rothenberg disagreed and concluded that Mrs. Murphy derived important non-economic benefits from her current relationship, making the relationship supportive within the meaning of the statute. In her dissent, she wrote, “Although Llerena either lacks the financial ability or the inclination to provide financial assistance to the former wife, he does perform valuable services to the former wife…The relationship is not dissimilar to many marriages where one spouse financially supports the other, while the other spouse contributes by performing valuable services that reduce the couple’s overall expenses.”
The difference between the Murphy majority and dissenting opinions brings into focus the ongoing disagreement regarding what constitutes a supportive relationship under the statute. A definitive ruling from the Florida Supreme Court is necessary to avoid continuing litigation over this issue.