Lately, I’ve encountered lots of people who are confused about whether North Carolina is a no-fault divorce state. In a word, yes. The answer is that this is a no-fault divorce jurisdiction. So…what does that mean?
A no-fault divorce is one in which neither party has to prove marital fault in order to obtain a divorce. All you have to do to get divorced in NC is (a) be separated for at least one year and one day and (b) one of the parties must have lived in the state for the past six months. You don’t have to give the court any reason that you want to get divorced. Nobody has to have cheated. Nobody has to have committed acts of domestic violence. You don’t have to claim irreconcilable differences. Nobody has to have done anything wrong. The facts and circumstances of your divorce can remain between you and your spouse, as far as the court is concerned. You can get a divorce if you meet the two criteria above.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the circumstances of the marriage and the break-up won’t be part of the case if you or your spouse makes claims for alimony, distribution of property, child support, child custody, etc. In deciding those questions, the court may have lots of questions about what went on in the marriage and who did what. But, just for purposes of getting that divorce decree that dissolves your marriage, you do not have to prove that anyone is at fault. Your spouse also cannot stop you from getting a divorce, provided that you can prove that you have been separated for a year and a day, and you have lived here for the past six months. As long as the necessary paperwork is completed and filed accurately and properly, you are entitled to a divorce whether your spouse wants it or not.
Of course, if you are confused about your rights, or what you can and should claim in a divorce, talk to a family lawyer about your unique circumstances. Some of the claims mentioned above, like alimony and division of property, are lost if they are not asserted before the divorce judgment is granted.
In the heat of the moment, when things are going awry in your marriage, it’s hard to think clearly about all the practical, sometimes scary, aspects of separating from your spouse. If you have time, however, to safely slow down and make a practical plan before moving forward, here are some things to do before you begin the divorce process.
Have you tried counseling? Sometimes you just know that things are over. But if you have doubts and your spouse is willing, it can be so helpful to seek professional counseling, either together or separately. Even if your spouse is not willing to try therapy, it’s beneficial to go on your own. Having a neutral party to talk things over with, get feedback, and focus on what’s important for your well-being is invaluable. In my opinion, a good divorce lawyer with your best interests at heart will always encourage you to seek counseling, or even insist upon it in very tumultuous circumstances.
Get to a lawyer ASAP. Scheduling a consultation with a lawyer does not mean you’re obligated to hire that lawyer or move forward with a separation or divorce at all. It is simply a good idea to get as much information as you can, as early as possible. A lawyer can give you useful advice about protecting yourself, your children, and your finances before you leave the marriage. While friends who have been divorced are a good source of comfort and camaraderie, there is no substitute for sound legal advice.
If you have had an affair, do not confess to anyone before talking to a lawyer. North Carolina is one of the states where adultery is illegal, and even more problematically, a jilted spouse can actually sue their spouse’s lover. Having an affair can cost you (and your paramour) substantially. It can also have drastic consequences on whether you or your spouse will be awarded alimony. If you have been unfaithful and have a guilty conscience, resist the urge to spill your secrets immediately. First, have a confidential meeting with a lawyer to discuss the possible consequences and how to handle them.
Know what your assets are, and put yourself in a strong position to protect them. First of all, if your spouse has been the one who’s in charge of finances, taxes, and investments, the best time to educate yourself is while you’re still living together. You and your lawyer are going to need to know about all of the property, assets, and debts that you and your spouse share. Don’t forget about insurance policies and retirement accounts. It is much easier and less expensive to find out by looking through paperwork in your own home, than to try to uncover everything during the discovery process of your divorce. Talk to your lawyer about what financial documents you should look for and gather for your case. Secondly, when you and your spouse do separate, keep possession of the things you want and need, like your car and at least a portion of the cash in savings. If you’re worried your spouse might sell anything valuable, like heirlooms or collectibles, keep them. Finally, make sure your lawyer knows about any real estate that you and your spouse own, and any belongings that do wind up in your spouse’s possession that you believe should not be. Your lawyer can help you take steps to recover your possessions and protect your real estate from being sold without your consent.
Start preparing for your separate life. Before you actually separate from your spouse, start assembling the basics that you will need to start your new life. Close or freeze joint credit accounts and block access to home equity loans. Close your joint checking and savings accounts and open separate ones. Change the name on utilities if necessary, and change the passwords on accounts that you no longer want your spouse to be able to access. Consider getting a post office box so you can securely receive mail from your lawyer, bank, etc. Again, think strategically and talk with your lawyer about ensuring that your transition will be as simple and well-handled as you can make it.
This list is not exhaustive by any means, but it should give you some things to think about if you’re considering or planning to divorce. Every case is different, so the bottom line with most issues is to talk to your lawyer about the best course of action.
This is a great article advising NC couples on why they are likely to need a separation agreement, even if they think it might be unnecessary. Even if you and your (soon-to-be former) spouse expect to keep things civil and cooperative through your split, there may be important reasons to protect yourself with a separation agreement.
Sex during the separation period can potentially be a big problem for a dependent spouse who plans to ask for alimony. Marital misconduct can be an important factor in the outcome of alimony claims in North Carolina. While having a sexual relationship after the separation does not constitute marital misconduct, a judge might consider it to be corroborating evidence that an affair was going on before the date of separation. In an alimony case, the dependent spouse is the one who receives alimony, and the supporting spouse is the one who pays alimony. In North Carolina, a dependent spouse who would otherwise be entitled to alimony is completely barred from receiving alimony if he/she had an affair while the parties were living together. Likewise, the supporting spouse may enter a sexual relationship after the date of separation without affecting his/her duty to pay alimony, but the Court could consider it as corroborative evidence of an affair before the separation. This use of post-separation sex to corroborate an allegation of marital misconduct can particularly become an issue when each party is trying to prove that the other had an affair for alimony purposes.
Under North Carolina law, alimony and post-separation support that have been awarded to a dependent spouse terminate when the dependent spouse remarries or engages in cohabitation. North Carolina General Statute § 50-16.9(b) says that “[c]ohabitation is evidenced by 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.” So a sexual relationship that the Court might see as evidence of cohabitation can lead to the early termination of alimony and post-separation support. If alimony and post-separation support are an issue in your case, talk candidly with your lawyer about protecting your claims if you are involved in a sexual relationship.
“Heart Balm” Lawsuits
If you have lived in North Carolina for long, you might have heard that we are one of a handful of states that allow a spouse to sue the person with whom their spouse cheated. These actions are called “heart balm” actions, presumably because they are supposed to help heal the heart of the jilted spouse. The first cause of action is called Alienation of Affection, in which the person who files the suit must prove that a third party caused his/her spouse to lose affection for them. Sex does not have to be part of this claim, but the courts have ruled that sex before the date of separation can help prove alienation of affection. Just as with alimony, sex that occurs after the parties have separated can be used to corroborate that there was already a sexual relationship before the separation.
Of the two heart balm torts, Criminal Conversation is an easier claim to prove than alienation of affection, because the jilted spouse who files suit only has to prove that extramarital sex occurred and that he/she was legally married when their spouse was having sex with the third party. Once again, post-separation sex can be used to corroborate conduct that occurred while the couple was still living together. The bottom line is that you should know that engaging in sex while you are separated from your spouse could place your sexual partner in jeopardy of a lawsuit.