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Domestic Relations – Alimony – Dependency – Future Income – Disability Benefits – Couple’s Pharmacy

Domestic Relations – Alimony – Dependency – Future Income – Disability Benefits – Couple’s Pharmacy

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Taylor v. Taylor (Lawyers Weekly No. 12-16-0291, 17 pp.) (Martha A. Geer, J.) Appealed from Duplin County District Court. (Sarah C. Seaton, J.) N.C. App. Unpub. Full-text opinion.

Holding: In its order denying alimony to a disabled husband, the trial court found that the husband had been able to maintain his standard of living despite his disability. However, the trial court also found that the husband’s private-insurance disability benefits would cease when he turned 65; moreover, the source of some of the husband’s income – the couple’s pharmacy – was distributed to the wife in the court’s equitable distribution order. The trial court should have made findings as to whether the husband would continue to be able to maintain his standard of living.

We affirm in part and vacate and remand in part.

While the husband is correct that, in Talent v. Talent, 76 N.C. App. 545, 334 S.E.2d 256 (1985), this court held that the trial court should have decided the issue of equitable distribution before ruling on alimony, Talent has been superseded by statute on that issue. G.S. § 50-16.3A(a) provides, “The claim for alimony may be heard on the merits prior to the entry of a judgment for equitable distribution….”

Further, to the extent that an equitable distribution would affect an award of alimony, G.S.  § 50-20(f) provides, “After the determination of an equitable distribution, the court, upon request of either party, shall consider whether an order for alimony or child support should be modified or vacated pursuant to G.S. 50–16.9 or 50–13.7.” Therefore, the trial court was not required to decide the equitable distribution claim first before addressing the alimony claim.

G.S. § 50-16.1A(2) defines a dependent spouse as a “spouse, whether husband or wife, who is actually substantially dependent upon the other spouse for his or her maintenance and support or is substantially in need of maintenance and support from the other spouse.”

In order for the first standard under the statute — “actually substantially dependent” — to apply, the spouse seeking alimony must have actual dependence on the other in order to maintain the standard of living to which that spouse became accustomed during the last several years prior to separation. In order for the second standard under the statute to apply — “substantially in need of maintenance and support” — a spouse requesting alimony is required to establish that he or she would be unable to maintain his or her accustomed standard of living (established prior to separation) without financial contribution from the other.

Here, the trial court addressed the first prong of the dependent spouse analysis in its findings, but it failed to address the second “substantially in need” prong.

The trial court found that the husband has been able to maintain “basically his same standard of living that he was accustomed to prior to the parties’ separation.”

However, an issue remains whether the husband will be able to continue to meet his needs. The court’s findings of fact reflect that the husband has been reliant on income from the parties’ pharmacy to maintain his standard of living.

The court recognized, however, that “as a result of this Order, he will no longer receive any additional monies such as this” from the pharmacy because it had been awarded in the equitable distribution part of the order to the wife.

Although the trial court appears to have recognized that the husband’s future income would be reduced by the trial court’s awarding the pharmacy to the wife, the court then failed to determine whether, given that reduction in income, the husband had shown that he was prospectively “substantially in need of maintenance and support.”

The trial court also acknowledged that the husband presented evidence that he would, in the future, also be losing access to other sources of income that had allowed him to maintain his standard of living: “He will no longer be eligible to receive his private disability benefits when he reaches age 65 in September of 2017.”

On the other hand, the trial court’s findings suggested that there was evidence that the husband possibly had the ability to earn some future income: The husband’s doctor “opined that Defendant could manage pharmacists and do drug reviews, had continued to drive a car and boat and still had a valid driver’s license. Dr. Pate also testified that he had not told Defendant not to go back to work. That Defendant testified that he thought he could work in the right situation.”

These findings of fact do not, however, resolve whether or not the husband will have access to those sources of income.

Rather than simply reciting what witnesses said, the trial court was required to actually decide whether the husband’s private disability income would end and whether he would have the ability to earn income in the future. These facts are pertinent to whether the husband is a dependent spouse under the “substantially in need” prong.

We vacate the trial court’s order to the extent that it denies the husband’s request for alimony and remand to the trial court to address the issue of whether the husband was substantially in need of maintenance and support.

Affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

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