Untying the Knot: Alimony in Our State

The law in North Carolina defines alimony as payment for the support and maintenance of a spouse or former spouse. A judge may order it in monthly payments, a lump sum and possibly by payment of certain expenses, such as health insurance. Temporary alimony is called post-separation support (PSS), which the court may award on a temporary basis at the early stage of a lawsuit, pending the alimony trial.

The Background & Controversy

The concept of alimony is somewhat controversial. Although men are free to seek alimony if they meet the legal requirements of dependency, it is overwhelmingly women who are financially dependent. Those who don’t think alimony is necessary point to the changing role of women over recent decades. They argue alimony keeps financially dependent women in a dependent position, and discourages them from becoming more financially independent. Proponents of alimony see it as a form of compensation to protect the spouse who, for a number of years, limited or forfeited a long-term earning capacity and the associated contributions necessary to grow a retirement. A spouse might make individual financial sacrifices in exchange for the betterment of the family unit, often when caring for the children. This allows the other spouse to devote his or her attention on a career, perhaps acquiring a degree, traveling or relocating on a regular basis, or creating and/or operating a small business.

Who Can File an Alimony Claim?

In our state, the law allows either spouse to ask for alimony if that person meets the other requirements. The most important requirement is financial dependency by one spouse, who is financially supported on the other. There must be a significant difference in their earned incomes, and/or unearned incomes such as investment dividends. If the spouses have the same level of income, there is no supporting spouse or dependent spouse, both of which are mandatory for the court to award alimony.

How is It Calculated?

North Carolina judges have a great deal of discretion when ruling on the amount of alimony to be paid, and how long it must be paid. There are no guidelines for alimony, as there are in child support cases. For each party, the judge reviews a financial affidavit, which is essentially a budget that includes living expenses and debts. From that, the court will decide the fairest way to address alimony, taking into account the needs of both parties. Judges are required to consider any evidence of marital misconduct, if either party offers it. Other considerations judges must consider include the ages and the physical, mental, and emotional conditions of the parties, as well as the length of the marriage, and any contribution of a spouse as homemaker. Alimony has specific tax consequences to be considered.  Another important consideration is the standard of living the couple established during the marriage.

When Does Alimony End?

The court sometimes directs alimony to be paid for a specific time period. If a spouse is in school earning a degree, or is only a few years away from drawing retirement, judges might tie the alimony award to coincide with these events. It is likely a judge will order permanent alimony if the parties have been married for over twenty years. There are several grounds that can terminate alimony sooner than what the judge orders.  When the recipient of alimony remarries, alimony ends. Odd as it sounds, alimony ends when either party dies. This means the estate of the deceased spouse has no ongoing alimony obligation, nor can the estate of the deceased spouse be entitled to it.  Alimony will also be terminated if the court finds that the alimony recipient lives with a romantic interest (i.e., cohabits).  The law defines “cohabitation” as “the voluntary mutual assumption of those marital rights, duties, and obligations which are usually manifested by married people, and which include, but are not necessarily dependent on, sexual relations.” NC Gen. Stat. §50-16.9.