Published on:

Calculating Alimony in North Carolina Divorces

Alimony calculations can be complex, and there are numerous factors that courts must consider when deciding how much spousal support to award.

Sunshine v. Sunshine

The case of Sunshine v. Sunshine covered many common issues that are found in alimony arguments, including standard of living, income calculations, and marital misconduct. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals vacated the lower court’s alimony order and remanded the case for further findings of fact and recalculation of alimony.

In Sunshine, Wife appealed orders that granted her alimony and denied her motion for a new trial. She argued that the trial court made several mistakes that resulted in an insufficient alimony award. At the hearing, the court orally discussed the following facts and rendered a preliminary award:

  • Husband’s monthly income was $38,000, and his monthly expenses totaled $16,000.
  • Wife’s monthly income equaled $1,000, and her monthly expenses were $9,859.
  • The trial court announced that Wife would be awarded $6,500 per month for 120 months.

When the alimony order was written and entered, it reflected vastly different amounts, as follows:

  • Husband’s monthly income was $25,473, and his expenses equaled $11,788 per month.
  • Wife’s monthly income totaled $3,419, and her expenses were $5,932 per month.
  • Wife was awarded $2,513 per month for 120 months.

Wife moved for a new trial or an alteration of the written alimony award, but both requests were denied. She appealed. As part of her appeal, she stated the trial court made errors, both legal and factual, that caused the insufficient alimony award.

Statutory Guidelines for Calculating Alimony

North Carolina law requires that courts consider certain factors when calculating spousal support, which include:

  • Marital misconduct
  • The spouses’ relative earnings and earning capacities
  • Age and health of each spouse
  • Amount of sources of income
  • Duration of the marriage
  • The established standard of living
  • Assets and liabilities of the spouses
  • Contributions of a spouse as a homemaker
  • Relative needs of the spouses

Income and Earning Capacity

Typically, alimony is determined using the actual income that both spouses earn from all sources, but there are exceptions. Income can be imputed in some cases, which means it is calculated based on the earning potential of a spouse. The trial court in Sunshine determined that Wife had not attempted to find full-time work and could make more money than she was. However, the Court of Appeals found no evidence that the lower court’s ruling determined that Wife depressed her income in bad faith, which is also a requirement for imputing income.

Standard of Living

Wife in Sunshine claimed that the trial court undervalued her and Husband’s standard of living during the marriage. When considering this element, courts must measure needs and expenses based on the parties’ lifestyle, not mere economic survival. The spouses in this case owned a 4,300 square-foot home, a lake house, five vehicles, a boat, and a jet ski. They also traveled to Israel, Disney World, Jamaica, and Costa Rica during the marriage. The Court of Appeals noted that the parties’ lifestyle was not extravagant, but it was also not frugal as the lower court had stated.

Another element in the standard of living argument was that of a comparable dwelling. Wife lived in an apartment that was much cheaper than the marital home had been, and the trial court stated that she did not demonstrate any need to purchase a home despite home ownership being consistent with the spouses’ standard of living. The Court of Appeals determined that this statement by the lower court was not supported and that Wife’s apartment was a significant reduction in the standard of living established by the marriage.

Marital Misconduct

In North Carolina divorce and alimony proceedings, marital misconduct means, among other things, indignities that make the other spouse’s life burdensome or intolerable and the excessive use of alcohol or drugs that creates an intolerable or burdensome situation for the other spouse. The Court of Appeals ruled that trial courts are not required to make findings of fact on every piece of evidence presented in a case; courts must only resolve the material and disputed factual concerns presented by the evidence. It was ruled that the marital misconduct in Sunshine did not need to be considered in the alimony award.