The history of spousal support (and child support), also called alimony or maintenance, can be traced back to the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian code of law dated back to 1754 BC, that declares that a man must provide sustenance to a woman who has borne him children. The Code provides that “If a man wishes to separate from a woman who has borne him children, or from his wife who has borne him children, then he shall give that wife her dowry, and a part of the usufruct of a field, garden, and property, so that she can rear her children. When she has brought up her children, a portion of all that is given to the children, equal as that of one son, shall be given to her. She may then marry the man of her heart.”
A similar law can be traced back to the Code of Justinian, which is the codification of Roman law ordered early in the 6th century by Justinian I, who was an Eastern Roman emperor in Constantinople. The Code of Justinian essentially provided that a gift of dowry or a prenuptial donation be held in escrow by the husband for the support of the wife in the event the marriage failed due to no fault of the wife. The law provided that there were five reasons a man could divorce his wife: i. Treason against the government; ii. She plotted against him; iii. Adultery (If there were no children, husband would keep the prenuptial donation and 1/3 of any property that wife possessed. If there were children, the prenuptial donation and property would be held for them when they became adults); iv. She bathed with strangers, or attended banquets, circuses, theaters, etc. against his wishes; or v. Wife remains away from home without husband’s knowledge or permission, unless she was visiting her parents. A wife, on the other hand, could divorce her husband for the following six reasons: i. Treason against the government; ii. He attempted to kill her or not warn her of a murder attempt by others; iii. He seeks to delivery her to another man for the purpose of committing adultery; iv. He accuses her of adultery but fails to prove her case; v. He entertained another woman in his wife’s home or he is frequently with another woman and refuses to stop after being warned by wife’s kinsmen; or vi. Husband is convicted of adultery (If there are children, wife retains prenuptial donation as alimony and gets portion to husband’s property to preserve for ownership of their children. If there are no children, portion of husband’s property to wife and portion of husband’s property to the government).
In the United States, modern alimony traces its roots back to feudal times in England where title and control of a woman’s property vested with her husband upon their marriage. In exchange for taking and controlling her property, the husband became responsible for support the wife for the rest of her life. This obligation to provide support continued even if the parties divorced, unless the divorce was the fault of the wife. If the wife’s bad conduct or infidelity was the cause of the divorce, the wife would not be entitled to support from the husband. Over time, the law evolved to require the wife to prove that husband’s misconduct or infidelity was the cause of the divorce, and thus entitle her to alimony.
The law in North Carolina before 1995 reflected this common law principal: that a dependent spouse seeking alimony must prove that the supporting spouse, whether husband or wife, committed marital fault before a court could consider their request for financial support. Additionally, then, regardless of whether the supporting spouse cheated, infidelity on behalf of the dependent spouse, before or after the date of separation, was a complete bar to receiving support.
The current spousal support laws of postseparation support (temporary alimony) and alimony in North Carolina were enacted in 1995. The current laws have diminished the role of marital fault in spousal support and focus more on economic need. Postseparation support is support that a dependent spouse is entitled to if the court determines that the dependent spouse’s resources are not adequate to meet his or her reasonable needs, and the support spouse has the ability to pay. While a court may consider marital misconduct in making a determination of postseparation support, the impact of any marital misconduct on a potential postseparation support award is within the discretion of the judge. Infidelity, for example, does not automatically serve as a bar for a dependent spouse seeking postseparation support; rather it is a factor for a judge to consider in determining whether to grant an award of postseparation support. An award of postseparation support will continue until: i. the date specified in the postseparation support order; ii. the entry of an order awarding or denying alimony; iii. the dismissal of an alimony claim; iv. the entry of a judgment of absolute divorce if no claim of alimony is pending at the time the judgment of absolute divorce is entered; or v. modification of an order for postseparation support. It is important to understand that postseparation support is primarily designed to function as a means of securing temporary support for a dependent spouse in an expedited manner.
The current alimony laws in North Carolina replaced a fault-based approach in making an award of alimony with a needs-based approach. With the exception of illicit sexual behavior, marital misconduct is one of many factors a judge may consider in determining whether alimony should be awarded, the amount of alimony, and the duration of the alimony award. As mentioned above, fault does control an award of alimony when there has been illicit sexual behavior. North Carolina defines illicit sexual behavior as acts of sexual or deviate sexual intercourse, deviate sexual acts, or sexual crimes voluntarily engaged in by a spouse with someone other than the other spouse. In at least one case, by way of example, penetration of a vagina by a finger was determined to be an act of illicit sexual behavior. See Romulus v. Romulus, 215 N.C. App. 495 (2011).
Illicit sexual behavior impacts alimony in North Carolina as follows:
Thus while the law is shifting away from fault in determining alimony, in North Carolina, illicit sexual behavior may serve as a bar or guarantee of an award of alimony. If you need to speak with an experienced spousal support attorney, contact Adkins Law to arrange a consultation.