Local courts have kicked off a pilot program meant to create more financial certainty for families and simplify the process when couples decide to go their separate ways.
Chief District Court Judge Joe Buckner approved the new guidelines for post-separation spousal support – money that helps an unemployed or lower-wage spouse temporarily pay the bills – earlier this year.
North Carolina couples must be separated and living apart for at least one year before the courts will grant them a divorce, and many issues, including the division of property, must be worked out during that separation period.
The post-separation support guidelines were drafted over 10 months by a committee of family law attorneys in District 15B, which includes Chatham and Orange counties, using historical data, formulas from other states and in consultation with local attorneys and judges.
District Court judges Charles Anderson and Jay Bryan praised the committee’s work, saying the guidelines are a step in the right direction.
While state law helps judges determine how much alimony and child support someone must pay, the law only lists criteria for judges to consider in awarding post-separation support. That can include individual income, financial need, standard of living, legal obligations and marital misconduct.
The process until now might have required months of mediation or court hearings, said Melissa Averett, a family law attorney who chaired the committee. It was hard for attorneys, especially from out of town, to help their clients, she said, the wait sometimes left people in tough situations.
“If you couldn’t afford an attorney to argue what your support amount ought to be, there wasn’t anything you could look at to say what’s a fair number,” Averett said. “I think the formula helps people who can’t afford an attorney more than anything else.”
“Even more important,” she added, “some of the clients I see are trying to figure out whether they can afford to leave a marriage, and sometimes leave an abusive marriage.”
The existing system also resulted in a wide range of support payments, Averett said, from 89 percent lower to 168 percent higher than what might be awarded under a standard formula.
An Orange County husband earning $52,981 a year, for example, might have been ordered to pay his dependent, unemployed wife between $146 and $3,580 a month in post-separation support, depending on the judge. That husband would pay $1,335 a month under the new guidelines.
A successful pilot program could be replicated in counties across the state, Anderson said. Averett said the feedback from attorneys has been mixed.
“Just about as many attorneys have complained to me that it’s too low as complained that it’s too high, so we think we’re in the right ballpark in terms of the result,” she said. “A number of attorneys have said it gave us a starting point; we were able to settle the case because we had a starting point.”
Anderson and Bryan said they haven’t had a chance to put the new guidelines into practice, but they agreed it could reduce the pressure on families while making the legal system more efficient. A permanent settlement can take up to two years, depending on the case, Anderson said.
They previously awarded spousal support by reviewing case law and the facts of each situation, the men said. Having a common set of guidelines saves couples thousands of dollars and leaves more time to negotiate tougher issues, they said, such as child custody, alimony and the division of assets.
There’s often a very real fear on both sides in divorce and separation cases about financial stability, Bryan said.
“Anything that can reduce any kind of conflict in these situations, even if it’s peaceable, will be helpful to people to move along to try to get to resolution and get on with their lives,” he said.
The Averett Family Law office has posted a handbook with the new District 15B guidelines, and forms for helping court officials and attorneys determine how much temporary spousal support to award, online at bit.ly/1NGy0va.