Husband and wife ignoring eachother on their phones

What is Spousal Abandonment in North Carolina?

In many cases, spouses come to a mutual decision to end the marriage and determine how arrangements related to property division and other matters will be worked out. But for some, the marriage ends abruptly when a spouse unexpectedly walks out the door. Deciding to abandon your spouse in North Carolina can have serious repercussions for any litigation arising out of your marriage. Whether you are the spouse who wants to leave the marriage, or you’re the husband or wife left behind, the family law attorneys of Patrick, Harper & Dixon can advise you.

North Carolina defines spousal abandonment as one spouse willfully ending cohabitation without:

The consent of the other spouse. When spouses mutually agree to end the marriage and separate from each other, this is not abandonment. Usually, the spouses will agree to execute a separation agreement when they take this course of action. In fact, executing such an agreement is a good protective measure to ensure the other spouse cannot later claim abandonment.

An intent to resume cohabitation. If there is no intent to come back home and resume living with the spouse, this element is met. However, there are instances in which a spouse may legitimately leave home for an extended period of time yet still have the intent to return. Two examples are military deployment and leaving home to care for an ailing relative.

Justification or provocation. Leaving a marriage because of physical or verbal abuse, drug or alcohol abuse, adultery, or withholding love and affection may serve as adequate justification or provocation. Generally, if the spouse who left had a good reason to do so, the judge may not consider his or her actions to be abandonment.

Abandonment is usually both physical and financial. It encompasses a spouse who not only leaves the marital residence but refuses to provide financial support to the other spouse or pay the bills of the marital residence. For this reason, abandonment will likely have a direct impact on a spousal support or alimony claim. A judge will consider abandonment as one of several factors in determining whether to award spousal support, how much, and for how long.

Child custody may also be affected. If the court determines that a spouse has abandoned not only the other spouse but the children, there’s a good chance this will hurt the custody rights of the abandoning spouse. The judge will have to consider the actions of the spouse prior to and after he or she abandoned the family. A spouse who leaves home and cuts ties with the children will find it difficult to demand custody rights later.

Of course, not every instance of a spouse leaving the marital residence is without justification or provocation. A parent who leaves to escape domestic violence and takes the children will likely not be held accountable for abandonment. To the contrary, a judge may award custody of the children to the spouse who left while limiting the visitation rights of the abusive spouse. 

The spouse who purportedly abandoned the marriage will have an opportunity to defend himself or herself. That means the spouse may be able to introduce evidence that he or she had a valid reason to leave the marriage. Said evidence may reflect poorly on you and raise the question of whether you provoked the spouse to leave. You may find yourself unexpectedly on the defensive.

It should be emphasized that spousal abandonment is but one factor a court will consider in both alimony and custody cases. Issues like these illustrate the importance of hiring experienced legal counsel. In the best case scenario of a marriage ending, the spouses will be able to work out a comprehensive separation agreement that preempts the ability of the other spouse to claim abandonment.

But if a separation agreement is not feasible, and either you need to leave the marriage for a good reason or the other spouse has left without one, our Hickory family law attorneys are ready to assist. Give Patrick, Harper & Dixon a call today.