By Jim Warren
Engaging a family law attorney for a divorce often begins with a question or set of questions. In a recent article, I detailed our thinking on interim distribution, a subject I receive questions about fairly often.
A subject that I discuss with similar frequency is post-separation support. Often in the context of a marriage, there are disparities in income—one party is the sole wage-earner, or one spouse brings home a substantially larger paycheck—or spouses bring significantly different assets to the marriage.
When people are considering divorce, they often hesitate to pull the trigger because they think they will be plunging into a life of hardship after enjoying a certain standard of living. This doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. North Carolina courts will award spousal support upon separation to what is termed a “dependent spouse.” Typically, a dependent spouse earns income that is insufficient to maintain the same standard of living due to the loss of the other spouse’s income.
Unlike child support, which the court determines with a calculator, judges have greater discretion and thus flexibility in awarding post-separation support. They tend to consider first the economics of the situation—the amount of money each spouse earns and whether each party. Next, and here’s where family court sometimes gets interesting, is the consideration of petitions to “meet the reasonable financial needs” of the dependent spouse.
When we see celebrity divorces, we often learn that the dependent spouse (usually a non-celebrity) may receive an exorbitant amount (what seems exorbitant, at least, to those of us who live in the real world) of post-separation support or alimony. That’s not due to a judge losing his or her mind: the concept here is that what constitutes a reasonable financial need, in the eyes of the court, depends on the lifestyle established and maintained along the course of the marriage. Obviously, this standard has a high degree of variance based on the earning power or inherited wealth of a couple.
Once the judge determines the extent of support needed for the dependent spouse, based on the merits of the petition, the court awards a temporary (until the divorce is settled) amount of money to be paid to the dependent spouse. This award can specifically include amounts to cover mortgage and car payments, as well as other necessities determined by the order.
Let’s address the temporary nature of post-separation support. Almost everyone has heard of the concept of alimony, a form of continuous support given by one spouse to another after the marriage has ended. Basically, post-separation support ceases and gives way to the judgment of alimony along with the divorce decree.
Post-separation support, or temporary alimony, is an amount paid by the supporting spouse to the dependent spouse to maintain the status quo pending trial. Does the amount of post-separation support transition automatically into the alimony award? Not necessarily! The court has a lot of discretion on the amount and duration of an alimony award, and the court looks at a number of considerations in making that determination, including marital fault.
In conclusion, don’t think that post-separation support and alimony are merely economic calculations made at the discretion of a judge. If one spouse’s marital conduct is called into question, then the court examines the conduct of both spouses with regard to making a decision on spousal support.
Issues of marital misconduct can run a gamut of behaviors, including adultery, substance abuse, criminal activity, abandonment, cruel treatment, and more.
It’s our job at Warren Family Law to help you understand the process that the courts use to determine concepts like equitable distribution of assets, especially in the context of post-separation support and alimony. There are multiple hearings to be held, testimony to be given, and financial records to disclose to inform judges on the particulars of each case. We thrive on giving robust representation to our clients to ensure their voices are heard and their goals are achieved.
If you’re considering ending your marriage, contact us today for a consultation. Know your rights, know your options.