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The Problem with Equitable Distribution Delays

Wall v. Wall, 536 S.E.2d 647, 140 N.C. App. 303 (N.C. App. 2000)

There are various legal mechanisms by which former spouses separate their personal and real property. One mechanism is Equitable Distribution (ED). Practically speaking, however, no division of property should be accomplished without first obtaining an Order/Judgment from the court. This is especially true for more valuable and unique assets like real property. So what happens if you have your hearing, but don’t get an Order in a timely manner?

  • Facts: Plaintiff and Defendant’s hearing on equitable distribution was in September, October, and November of 1996. The Order was not entered until June of 1998. This was a 19-month lapse in time since a ruling on the distribution in 1996. In 1996, the trial court decided on an equal distribution of the marital property and debt. Defendant appealed.


  • Issue: First, did the trial court err by delaying the entry of the ED order?


  • Holding:


  • Rationale: There will always be some time between the close of evidence and the entry of judgment; it often takes time to prepare the judgment. In complex cases, the delay is typically longer. Normally, a three-month delay in ED cases would not amount to much prejudice because the parties and the property will not have changed much in such a short time span. But in 19 months, the conditions of the parties and the property may have changed drastically. For instance, the value of a profit-sharing plan had increased considerably since the date of separation, and increases ought to be considered by the trial court as a distributional factor. Other marital property, such as a residence, may also have increased or decreased in value. Finally, the parties’ conditions and health, another distributional factor, also could have changed in the time between the hearings in 1996 and the entry of the order in 1998. They key lesson is not to delay, especially in cases where values are essential to the outcome. The side effect of delay is change, and enough change can amount to prejudice for one party and may vacate the judgment.