Spousal Support and the Ongoing Process of Marriage Equality

Since the federal ruling in June 2015, same-sex couples in Virginia theoretically have enjoyed not only the right to marriage but also the marriage benefits that have long been available to opposite-sex couples. However, there are still plenty of wrinkles in the system, as shown in a decision by the Supreme Court of Virginia earlier this year.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that in a rather unusual nod to marriage equality, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled in late April 2016 that a woman who had been cohabitating with another woman for more than a year was no longer eligible to receive spousal support from her ex-husband. This decision overturned rulings by lower Virginia courts, which had determined that despite the 2015 federal ruling, cohabitation was only equivalent to marriage when the individuals involved were of the opposite sex. The decision by the Supreme Court of Virginia effectively broadened the language in Virginia’s alimony statutes to provide a more equitable interpretation.

The National Law Review notes that according to Virginia law, alimony can be legally terminated if the recipient of spousal support “has been habitually cohabitating with another person in a relationship analogous to a marriage for one year or more.” Of course, the person seeking to terminate support is the one who must provide evidence that cohabitation in fact equates to marriage regardless of the sex of the individuals involved.

By acknowledging that cohabitation can be analogous to marriage in both opposite-sex and same-sex living arrangements, the Supreme Court of Virginia not only ironed out an irregularity in the state’s marriage laws but also took a step toward enforcing equality. In the long struggle for marriage equality for same-sex couples, this is a victory, albeit an unusual one.