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Alimony – Who Is Dependent, Who Is Supporting?

Madar v. Madar, No.COA20-28 (Dec. 2020).

In North Carolina, alimony is a type of spousal support that provides for the maintenance of a dependent spouse, by the supporting spouse. Dependent and supporting are legal terms, with incredible significance. In order to receive alimony, one must be a dependent spouse, the other party must be a supporting spouse, and the alimony must be fair after considering a set of factors in our statutes and case law. Below is a simple case outlining how a court determined dependent/supporting spouse.

  • Facts: Defendant Husband and Plaintiff Wife were married and had three children. The children all ended up with severe mental health issues at various times during the marriage and after separation. One child had to enroll in inpatient care for his health issues. In 2019, alimony was awarded to the Plaintiff Wife. The trial court found that Plaintiff earned less than Defendant during their marriage, Plaintiff worked as a post-doc at UNC and received a modest stipend; Plaintiff could not work for months after his post-doc due to visa issues; Plaintiff worked in a grant-funded position, and when the grant ran out her position was closed; Plaintiff was the primary caretaker for the children and would manage the children’s mental health needs; Plaintiff had not suppressed her income in bad faith. Plaintiff had reasonable expenses totaling just under $4,000 a month and had no income because she was unemployed. The trial court found Plaintiff as a dependent spouse. On the other hand, Defendant’s income was just under $6,000 a month, and his reasonable expenses totaled $3,729 a month, leaving a surplus of roughly $2,000. Plaintiff was awarded $2,395 a month for eight years and seven months. Defendant appealed.


  • Issue: Did the trial court abuse discretion when it ordered Defendant to pay alimony?


  • Holding: Yes, and no


  • Rationale: The evidence before the trial court supports finding that Plaintiff was a dependent spouse, and Defendant was a supporting spouse. Plaintiff had no income and had expenses she could not cover. Defendant made no argument that Plaintiff was suppressing her income in bad faith. Defendant also had enough income to generate a surplus after his reasonable monthly expenses. The trial court was not wrong in classifying Plaintiff as dependent and Defendant as supporting. Where the trial court erred was in determining the amount and duration of the alimony award. There must be findings to explain the reasoning behind setting a specific amount and specific duration for the alimony award. The Court of Appeals remanded to the trial court to make such findings.


  • Lessons and Observations:
    1. This is a simple and clean interpretation of what it means to be dependent and supporting, and how it applies to parties in an alimony case. Supporting spouses typically earn more than they spend a month, and dependent spouses typically spend more than they earn. But keep in mind that the award must be fair, and it is not just based on income and expense; there are various factors that can alter the award. Furthermore, income and expenses themselves can be a complicated matter. Our family law specialists have vast experience with alimony and can help guide you through your case.