Equitable Distribution Judgments Are Not Modifiable
Dozier v. Dozier, 2022-NCCOA-307 (unpublished) (2022)
In North Carolina, an Equitable Distribution (ED) judgment is a final court-ordered distribution of the marital assets. Unlike child support, alimony, or custody, these are not modifiable upon showing the court that there has been a substantial change in circumstances. A rule 60 motion is one that is essentially asking the court for relief from the judgment entered. There are many grounds for asking relief. In an interesting twist, one party sought to void one particular section of an ED judgment, rather than the whole thing.
Facts: Plaintiff and Defendant went to mediation for their ED claim. The parties resolved their issue of ED in the mediation. As part of their settlement, the parties came to a consent order for ED. As part of that order, the parties had classified and distributed property. One property was a home located in California. After the entry of the consent order, Defendant filed a rule 60 motion to relieve the parties from the consent order, or to modify the terms of the order as it related to this California home. Plaintiff later consented and joined in the rule 60 motion and asked to set aside the entire ED consent order. The parties had a discovery dispute that resulted in a motion to compel. At the hearing on that motion to compel, Defendant asserted that she only sought to set aside the paragraph of the order related to the California home, not the entire order. Plaintiff withdrew the consent to the rule 60 and instead would file a motion to dismiss the rule 60 based on rule 12(b)(6)—for failure to state a claim for which relief could be granted. The trial court granted this motion to dismiss the rule 60. Defendant appealed.
Issue: Did the trial court err in granting the motion to dismiss?
Reason: The trial court dismissed the rule 60 motion because the rule 60 was asking for a type of relief—setting aside just one portion of a consent ED order—that is not recognized in law. On appeal, Defendant made no arguments to show that the trial court could grant that relief if her rule 60 survived the motion to dismiss. Therefore, it was not an error to dismiss the rule 60. This opinion does not go so far as to say whether that specific relief could be granted, only stating that Defendant failed to bring up that argument. Assuming there is no binding legal precedent that allows the setting aside of just parts of an ED order/judgment, this Court would hint that either rule 60 motion on ED orders are “all or nothing.” This means either the whole order is set aside, starting the ED issue from scratch essentially, or that none of it will be. This is just one thing to consider when going with a court order or separation agreement; there could be changes down the line.