The word “divorce” is enough to evoke images of courtroom battles, lawyers arguing, and plenty of time and money spent on an overall stressful experience. And while these images match reality for many divorcing spouses, there is a solution that can help make the process much easier. If divorce is in your near future and you want to understand your legal options, talk to the family law attorneys of Patrick, Harper & Dixon, LLP.
In North Carolina, spouses must be physically separated (living apart and under separate roofs) for at least one year before their marriage can be formally terminated in a divorce. But “divorce” usually entails more than just the end of a marriage. Divorcing spouses must typically resolve these issues, among others:
- Property and debt division
- Spousal support and alimony
- Child custody
- Child support
Divorcing spouses in North Carolina can choose to address these matters during the one-year separation period by drafting a separation agreement. In fact, other than the divorce itself, a separation agreement can settle just about every issue between the spouses. And with few exceptions, spouses can agree to whatever they want.
If the parties are able to enter into a separation agreement, the divorce itself could be a mere formality. That is, the spouses can settle everything between them except the legal dissolution of their marriage. Only a judge can enter a divorce decree.
There are a few things to know about separation agreements. For one, you cannot force your spouse to enter into one. Also, there are some matters that divorcing spouses cannot agree to, such as waiving child support.
While it’s generally a good idea to try to settle all issues arising out of the marriage (such as those listed above), separating spouses can choose to settle some matters and reserve others for court. For example, the spouses may settle alimony, equitable distribution, and child support, and sign an agreement to that effect. But if they cannot agree on who should have primary custody of the child, then a court can decide. The separation agreement can include as many or as few issues as the spouses can agree to.
Benefits of a Separation Agreement
While every case is different, these are a few ways a separation agreement could make your divorce easier:
- Save time and money. This is perhaps the most appealing aspect of a separation agreement. Your divorce will most likely be less expensive and take less time if you and the other party can enter into an agreement. Conversely, litigation could mean multiple hearings, discovery, motions, and other procedures which cost time and money.
- Finality. A separation agreement is a contract unless the parties agree to incorporate it into the divorce decree. As a contract, the issues agreed upon are final; any modification requires the mutual assent of the parties. Courts can always alter separation agreement terms that concern child custody and child support, regardless of whether the agreement is incorporated. But for most issues, an unincorporated separation agreement is the final word.
- Preparation for post-divorce life. Separation agreements take time and deliberation, and should always be written with the assistance of a knowledgeable attorney. When done correctly, a separation agreement will clarify the financial and property rights and responsibilities of the soon-to-be-divorced spouses. This helps them both plan for their separate, post-divorce lives.
- Facilitates future cooperation and communication. Spouses who enter into a separation agreement do so through negotiation and compromise. This, in turn, makes it easier for the parties to cooperate and communicate with each other down the road. If a dispute arises later, such as one involving child custody, the parties are more likely to discuss it amicably rather than rush to the courtroom.
Your divorce doesn’t have to be a knock-down, drag-out fight. A separation agreement can make it easier, less expensive, and less stressful. Let us show you how. Call Patrick, Harper & Dixon, LLP today to get started.