Today I'm going to try something different and, hopefully, fun. I came across a hypothetical a couple weeks ago regarding a couple, two dogs, puppies, and divorce. Lots of interesting issues that all involve equitable distribution. After all, pets are property in North Carolina.
A NC Court of Appeals case, Lesh v. Lesh, NC App. (Jan 18), has reaffirmed that military disability pay is income that can be considered for a distributive award when the trial court is looking for a source of payment. However, military pay cannot be distributed by a court in equitable distribution.
Now there is a phrase that pretty much sums up most separations and divorces. Did you know that within family law, and any area of law for that matter, that contempt plays an important, but sometimes confusing role? Let's chat about contempt as it applies to the law and we'll leave the Oxford English Dictionary definition alone.
If you and your spouse have come to the difficult realization that your marriage is no longer working and there are certain factors that lead you both to the conclusion that a separation is the only rational conclusion to your relationship, then a separation agreement may be the best, most cost-effective resolution to your marriage. Separation agreements are authorized by North Carolina General Statute 52-10 as well as common law.
WHAT IS A SEPARATION AGREEMENT EXACTLY?
A separation agreement is a contract between two spouses that can include as many topics as you and your spouse can agree upon. Most of those topics I've already covered in my family law blog that can be found here and they include child custody, child support, and equitable distribution. Spouses can also include post-separation support and alimony in a separation agreement as well.
WHAT RECOURSE DO I HAVE IF MY SPOUSE BREACHES THE SEPARATION AGREEMENT?
A breach of a separation agreement is the same as breaching any contract made between two parties. The remedy is the same as if party A and party B enter into a contract for services and party B breaches. Party A can file a breach of contract action against party B to recover damages. Same with a separation agreement. If a separation agreement states that spouse A is to pay spouse B $1,000 a month in alimony and spouse A misses a payment or payments, then spouse B can file a breach of contract suit against spouse A for breaching their separation agreement. Keep in mind that the statute of limitations for any breach of contract action is three years from the date of the breach or ten years from the date of the breach if the agreement was signed under seal by both parties.
CAN A JUDGE ENFORCE THE AGREEMENT WITHOUT A PARTY FILING A BREACH OF CONTRACT CLAIM?
Yes, however, the agreement must be incorporated into a court order for a judge to be able to enforce the agreement through contempt. If the parties do not have a specific provision in their separation agreement that states that they both intend to have the separation agreement incorporated into a final divorce order, then most judges will not agree to incorporate it into the final divorce order.
WHAT IF MY SPOUSE WON'T SIGN THE AGREEMENT?
Both parties must voluntarily sign and have their signatures notarized for a separation agreement to be valid. However, there will not be a valid contract if a party signs under duress or is unduly influenced. I highly recommend that parties sit down and come up with an idea of what they will agreed upon in a separation agreement and figure out what areas they may need help with. If both parties are far off in what they want in the separation agreement, then a separation agreement may not be in the cards. However, if both parties have everything worked out except one area (ex. Post-Separation Support), then a separation agreement will still be a an option.
DO I NEED MY SEPARATION "PAPERS" IN ORDER TO BE LEGALLY SEPARATED?
This is a very common question and certainly understandable given what is seen in popular culture, but the answer is no, spouses do not have to actually have anything in writing to be legally separated. That said, I highly recommend having a separation agreement in place so there is proof of when the separation started as well as written proof as to what the parties agreed upon in regards to marital property, custody schedules, etcetera. A spouse starts the separation process when he or she moves from the marital home and intends to be separate and apart from the other spouse and actually does so. I'll go deeper into the elements of an actual divorce action in North Carolina in my next blog post.
In the meantime, check out my child support video posted here. Until we meet again.