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Understanding Alimony

Wayne Hopper, Legal Assistant

Williams v. Williams, 261 S.E.2d 849 (1980)

Alimony (also called spousal support in North Carolina) is a form of financial support awarded during a divorce proceeding and serves as a means to assist a dependent spouse post marriage. A “dependent spouse” is a person substantially reliant on their spouse for financial support or maintenance. Under North Carolina law, either spouse can receive alimony so long as they meet one of two criteria: (1) the spouse cannot meet their own reasonable financial needs without the other spouse’s income or assets, or (2) the spouse cannot maintain the standard of living they have enjoyed during the marriage absent the other spouse’s income or assets.

In 1980, the North Carolina Supreme Court heard the matter of Williams v. Williams, a divorce between Lucy Blount Williams (Plaintiff) and Alfred Williams III (Defendant). Before the trial court in August of 1977, Plaintiff sought, among other things, “a divorce from bed and board, temporary alimony, permanent alimony, counsel fees and suit money, custody of the one minor child of the parties, and child support.” The trial court concluded that Plaintiff was in fact the dependent spouse and Defendant was the supporting spouse. The trial court awarded Plaintiff $1,000.00 per month as permanent alimony, ownership of the home, mortgage, tax and utility payments, insurance coverage on the home, and certain medical expenses.

These awards were based on evidence presented, which included earning and savings statements and evidence on cost of living. Defendant appealed, and the appellate court found that the trial court was in error when it awarded the Plaintiff alimony because “[t]he evidence completely fails to support the trial court’s finding that plaintiff is substantially dependent upon the defendant or in need of maintenance and support from him.” The Court of Appeals therefore reversed the order for alimony. Following the Court of Appeals decision, Plaintiff brought the case before the N.C. Supreme Court, which overturned the Court of Appeals’ decision reversing the trial court allowance of permanent alimony. The Supreme Court found that, based on the evidence, Plaintiff qualified as a dependent spouse and thus qualified for alimony. Evidence cited by the Court to support their ruling included the relative incomes and earning potential of each spouse, along with the standard of living established during the marriage.

The principal issue before the Court was whether the evidence presented at the trial court level was sufficient to show that Plaintiff was a dependent spouse and therefore able to receive alimony from the supportive spouse under North Carolina law.

N.C. General Statute 50-16 is the primary guiding law for alimony in North Carolina. This statute establishes several factors that the court can consider when determining alimony awards. These factors include:

  • The earning capacity and relative earnings of each spouse
  • The age and emotional, mental, and physical condition of each spouse
  • Any contribution to the education, training, or increased earning power of one spouse by the other
  • The duration of the marriage
  • Standard of living established during the marriage
  • Marital misconduct

The above factors are not exhaustive, and the court has the discretion to consider many other factors when determining appropriate alimony, as well as the amount of that award. Note that alimony is not granted automatically, and a request must be filed in the same court which hears the divorce proceedings. Duration of alimony is at the court’s discretion.

The intricacies of alimony are often challenging to navigate. To best protect yourself and any dependents you may have, it is imperative that you engage an experienced family law attorney. Woodruff Family Law Group can guide you through the divorce and alimony process and help you reach the best possible outcome.