Luttrell v. Cucco – Same-Sex Couple Cohabitation Affects Spousal Support Payments

Last year, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision opened the doors for same-sex partners across the country to obtain a marriage license – and to have those marriages recognized in any state across the country. Since that ruling, many same-sex couples have married in Indiana. woman

But there are still some gray areas in our nation’s civil court systems with regard to these relationship. Take for example the recent case of Luttrell v. Cucco, weighed in on by the Virginia Supreme Court.

At its core, this case was a dispute over spousal support. As is common in many temporary spousal support agreements, a provision indicated that the support agreements were subject to termination in the event of “cohabitation,” as defined in Va. Code 20-109. The law states that maintenance and support of an ex-spouse may be discontinued upon cohabitation, remarriage, or death. Specifically, the law states that an ex-spouse who has been “habitually cohabitating with another person in a relationship analogous to a marriage for one year or more” is subject to termination of spousal support benefits. 

In this case, plaintiff (Husband) and defendant (Wife) were married in 1992. They later separated and Wife filed for divorce in 2007. Pursuant to the divorce agreement, Husband was to pay Wife monthly spousal support for a term of eight years. However, those payments could be terminated earlier if the wife died, remarried, or began cohabitating in a marriage-like relationship. The agreement also indicated that reasonable expenses incurred by a party in the successful enforcement of the agreement would have to be paid by the defaulting party.

In 2014, the husband hired a divorce lawyer and sought an amendment of the spousal support agreement, arguing that his ex-wife was engaged to be married and had been living continuously with her fiancée for at least a full year. He sought to terminate his spousal support agreement, and he also wanted his ex-wife to refund the equivalent of one year’s worth of payments.

At the hearing, Wife did not dispute the allegations, but she contended that because her relationship was with another woman, it wasn’t technically “cohabitating” under the terms of the law.

The circuit court decided that the right to marry was a separate question from the issue of cohabitation for spousal support purposes. Citing dissent in a prior Court of Appeals decision, the court ruled that only opposite-sex couples could cohabitate for purposes of spousal support termination. Several prior decisions had held that cohabitation be interpreted as a “man and a woman” and as “husband and wife.” Husband’s motion was denied and he was ordered to pay his ex-wife’s legal fees.

He appealed. The court of appeals affirmed, but the Virginia Supreme Court reversed.

Justices stated that they favored an interpretation that would further the statute’s purpose, rather than obstruct it. The court noted that the legislature, in wording the law, had not modified the word “person” with the phrase “of the opposite sex,” meaning it could include persons of either sex. The court further noted that although same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in Virginia in 1997 when the law was written, that was not relevant because the phrase “a relationship analogous to marriage” doesn’t equal “marriage.”

Therefore, a same-sex relationship could be considered “analogous to marriage,” regardless of whether the two could legally marry (which, of course, now they can). The lower court’s ruling was reversed.

Indiana Family Law Attorney Burton A. Padove handles divorce and child custody matters throughout northern Indiana, including Gary and Hammond. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.

Additional Resources:

Luttrell v. Cucco, April 28, 2016, Virginia Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Ahls v. Ahls – Appeals Court Favors Wife in Indiana Divorce Settlement, April 20, 2016, Indiana Divorce Lawyer Blog