A Guide to Divorce in North Carolina
Every divorce in North Carolina is unique to some degree or another, but most all must follow the same rules and procedures no matter what the circumstances are.
This guide will help you understand what many of those basic rules and procedures are so that you can equip yourself with important information you will need to help you get through a divorce, which is technically known as an Absolute Divorce in North Carolina.
You should also get answers to your questions through other sources such as a family law attorney, your county courthouse, friends and relatives who have gone through a divorce, and online resources to help you deal with the financial, social and emotional challenges you’ll face along the way.
Here are some important things to know as you start working through the divorce process.
- The differences between Absolute Divorce, annulment and a Divorce of Bed and Board
- What are the grounds for Absolute Divorce in North Carolina?
- What kind of divorce is right for you
- What is the process of filing for divorce in North Carolina?
- Completing proof of service in North Carolina
- Can you file for divorce online in North Carolina?
- Filing for divorce in North Carolina without using a lawyer
- How much will it cost?
- How long does it take?
- Should I retain the services of a certified divorce financial analyst?
- Bifurcation of marital status in North Carolina
- Can I cancel, refuse, contest, stop or reverse a divorce in North Carolina?
- What is a divorce decree?
- What is proof of divorce?
- Changing Your Name
- Bonus: Recommended Resources for a Better Divorce
The differences between Absolute Divorce, Annulment and a Divorce of Bed and Board
Married couples can end their marriages through Absolute Divorce or Annulment in North Carolina. Legal separation, formally referred to as a Divorce of Bed and Board, is another option some couples may choose as a way to change their marital relationship. Each of these has their own special requirements and rules, and a basic understanding of these options is a good place for you to start.
Legal Separation/A Divorce from Bed and Board. Legal separation is an option for couples who no longer want to be together in North Carolina. While it is known as legal separation in most other states, the official term for this action is a Divorce from Bed and Board, although it is not an actual divorce. You must get an Absolute Divorce or annulment to officially end a marriage in North Carolina.
A Divorce from Bed and Board gives a couple the option of living independently from each other physically and financially. It requires that things like a division of assets, child custody, and support be decided as if a marriage were actually being dissolved. It requires the execution of a document that is legally binding and signed by both spouses.
There are five general grounds for a Divorce from Bed and Board, and all of them are fault-based. They include
- Abandonment or Turning Out. This is also known as desertion and takes place when one spouse abandons or “turns the other out of doors” and happens when a spouse suddenly leaves without reason or without consent of the other spouse.
- Cruel or Barbarous Treatment. This requires that one spouse puts the life of the other spouse in danger and usually involves physical violence.
- This is a catch-all that defines a spouse’s actions as intolerable and life burdensome. This can include verbal abuse, humiliation, false accusations of adultery and other similar behaviors.
- Drug Abuse. This fault can be cited when drug or alcohol abuse is so excessive that it makes living conditions intolerable for the other spouse.
The other spouse must be able to provide sufficient proof that adultery has taken place for a Divorce of Bed and Board to be granted in this instance.
In some cases, a Divorce of Bed and Board provides a much-needed time out that allows two people to try and resolve their issues in a less combative environment. Stepping away can bring added perspective about what a couple will lose in a marriage and possibly give them time to heal from the issues that caused their marriage to come under stress. Spouses may also choose a Divorce of Bed and Board for religious reasons. Some religions do not look favorably upon divorce and staying married though legally separated puts less pressure on a couple who might otherwise be in conflict with their church and religious beliefs.
A Divorce of Bed and Board may also provide financial benefits as well, such as being able to keep health insurance, or by continuing to file as a married couple on tax returns. If a person is not a U.S. citizen, and they get a divorce, they run the risk of deportation. But with a Divorce of Bed and Board, a noncitizen can still stay in the country even if they don’t live with their spouse.
Annulment. Annulments are allowed in North Carolina and mean that a marriage is considered null and void, as if it never happened. To be granted an annulment, strict requirements must be met and courts in North Carolina do not grant annulments without a court hearing.
The grounds for getting an annulment in North Carolina include:
- A marriage between close family members
- A marriage when one party is under age 16 (with exceptions)
- A marriage where one party is already married (bigamy)
- A marriage where one party is physically impotent
- A marriage where one party is incompetent
- A marriage where the wife lied about being pregnant
Absolute Divorce. In North Carolina, divorce is actually known as Absolute Divorce. It is a permanent and legal end to a marriage. All ties are severed, assets are divided, custody and alimony issues are resolved, and each spouse goes their separate way after a Decree of Divorce is issued.
What are the grounds for Absolute Divorce in North Carolina?
There are only two grounds for Absolute Divorce in North Carolina.
The no-fault option in which an Absolute Divorce may be granted can only take place if two spouses live separate and apart for one year. This means physically living apart, not in different areas of the same residence, for one full and uninterrupted year. At least one of the spouses must also have been a resident of North Carolina for six months immediately prior to filing a Complaint for Absolute Divorce.
The only other ground for Absolute Divorce is incurable insanity. It occurs when a spouse suffers from a mental illness or impairment that requires them to be confined to a medical facility. A judge can grant a divorce only after the illness has caused the spouses to live apart for three consecutive years prior to starting the divorce process. Proving incurable insanity requires medical documentation from two doctors about the nature of the insanity.
Understanding what your divorce options are
Understanding the different divorce process options is a critical first step in moving forward. In fact, after the decision to divorce, your choice of how you will get divorced is the most important decision you will make.
Remember that divorce is anything by cookie cutter. That means there isn’t a “best” option across the board – but there is a best option for you.
So, what are your divorce options?
What I like to call the kitchen table divorce. This one is pretty straight forward. You don’t hire any professionals and attempt to resolve all your differences with your spouse. The biggest downside is you don’t know what you don’t know. I’d steer clear of this approach unless you don’t have kids or any money.
A far superior choice to DIY divorce. Navigating the divorce process and legal procedures can be a minefield. A good online divorce platform removes the guesswork. Through guided interviews, you’ll complete the forms while getting educated on the key legal issues in the process. This can be a great option if you have a relatively straightforward situation and you’re on the same page with your spouse.
The default option and also the most expensive. If you and your spouse can’t agree on one of the other options, then you’re headed for litigation. Litigation is an attorney-driven process. While the majority of cases settle before going to trial, that doesn’t mean litigation won’t wreak havoc on you and your kids.
Sometimes it’s the only viable option, however. If your spouse has a high-conflict personality (narcissist, borderline, etc.) or there is domestic violence, litigation might be your only option. It’s also the right choice if your primary objective is to punish your spouse. As tempting as that might be, I encourage you to think about the big picture.
With mediation, you and your spouse retain a neutral professional (typically an attorney) to help facilitate agreement. The mediator will help you brainstorm options, understand each other’s perspectives, and make compromises to reach a resolution that you and your spouse can both live with.
Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t just mean that you and your spouse are going to work out your divorce “collaboratively.” There’s much more to it. Collaborative divorce is a structured process that takes a team approach. Divorce is much more than a legal process. It’s about money, kids, and emotions.
That’s why a Collaborative team includes collaborative lawyers, a divorce coach, and a neutral financial specialist. Unlike any other process, everyone commits not to go to court. The idea is that this removes the threat of litigation which fosters creative solutions and interest-based negotiation. It’s far and away the most supportive type of divorce.
Learn More: I’ve really just scratched the surface on the types of divorce. For a deep dive into the pros and cons of these options, be sure to check out our guide on the types of divorce.
What is the process of filing for divorce in North Carolina?
You can pursue many kinds of divorce processes in North Carolina, But the basic elements are pretty much the same no matter type of divorce you choose.
Gather important information. One of the smartest things you can do is to get organized early on in your divorce. There will be a lot of documents you will need to gather that are not only required, but to also help your case to the highest degree possible.
Don’t assume you’ll be able to negotiate a fair settlement with your spouse if you don’t have accurate information. It’s simply not possible to make informed decisions without good records.
Before you jump in to collecting financial information, take the following steps:
- Open a new checking and savings account in your name alone.
- Open a credit card in your name alone.
- Order a free credit report.
- Make a list of all the assets and liabilities that you’re aware of. Include any memberships, reward points, and other perks that may be considered as assets.
Okay, now it’s time to start gathering your information. Here’s a short-list of what you need:
- Tax returns (including W-2’s, K-1’s, and 1099’s) for the last 5 years
- Pay stubs for the last 3 months
- Bank statements
- Credit card statements
- Retirement account statements
- Pension plan statements
- Grant notice for stock options, RSUs, etc.
- Investment account statements
- Life insurance policies
- Mortgage statements
- Real estate appraisals
- Deeds to real estate
- Car registration
- Kelley Blue Book printouts (“private party value”)
- Car loan statements
- Social security benefit statement
This is only a partial list. To see exactly what you should focus on gathering, we’ve prepared a Divorce Information Checklist that you can check out here as part of our article The Ultimate Divorce Checklist: The Information You Need to Prepare for Divorce.
Complete the initial paperwork. You will need to complete several forms and submit them to start the divorce process. If you’re using an attorney, they will make sure you are using the right forms and that they are filled out correctly.
While every divorce is different, at a minimum, you will need to prepare the following documents:
- Complaint – there are two versions of this form and which one you use will depend on if you have minor children or not.
- Verification – When you complete and sign a Verification, you are swearing that the information you have provided is the truth. It must be signed in front of a Notary Public before it can be submitted to the county courthouse.
- Civil Summons – A Civil Summons is the document that is served on your spouse to legally notify them that they are being served with a divorce Complaint. It gives the server the information they need to deliver the documents to your spouse. When the Summons has been served, the server will complete a proof of service document which will then be returned to the court to show that the spouse has been legally served their divorce paperwork.
- Civil Action Cover Sheet – For all civil actions in North Carolina, this cover sheet is used to summarize the critical elements of the filing in a standardized format prescribed by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
- If you are seeking a waiver of the filing and services fees due to an inability to pay, then you will also need to complete a Petition to Sue/Appeal as an Indigent and an Affidavit of Indigency as well.
Be sure to check with the Clerk of Courts where you live to make sure that you have all the forms you need prior to submitting them because rules and procedures can vary depending on the county where you live.
File your forms. After you have completed your forms, you will need to file the paperwork at the Clerk of the Court’s office in the county where you live. When you file, you will also need to pay a filing fee, usually $225, plus a fee to have the paperwork served on your spouse. When this is done by a county sheriff the fee is usually $30.
If you can’t afford these fees, you can request a waiver by submitting a Petition to Sue/Appeal as an Indigent and if it is approved, those fees will be waived.
When you file your forms, the Clerk will assign a case number to your case that will be used to track your divorce as it moves through the courts. Many counties will also give you directions about what comes next and what steps you need to follow to finalize your divorce to minimize any concerns and difficulties you might otherwise have.
Completing proof of service in North Carolina
Pursuant to North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, the preferred way to complete proof of service is to have a sheriff serve the complaint and summons to a spouse. If a spouse resides in North Carolina, the fee for this service is generally nominal but may vary some from county to county.
It’s best to check with the local sheriff agency to get an exact cost for this service. After a spouse has been served, the sheriff will return a signed copy of the summons that lists the time, place and manner or service which will act as proof that service has been completed
If the sheriff is not able to complete service, then a spouse may attempt service by registered mail or certified mail. It is also possible to attempt delivery through a process server or by a designated delivery service such as FedEx. If these methods are used, a spouse must file an affidavit and attach a proof of delivery by the appropriate service.
If these methods fail, then a spouse can attempt service by publication but only if you have attempted the other methods with due diligence. This requires placing legal notices in local publications for three successive weeks in a newspaper that is qualified for legal advertising to meet the legal requirements needed to complete proof of service.
Can you file for divorce online in North Carolina?
There are several firms and private family law attorneys who can assist you in completing the forms you will need to file for your Absolute Divorce in North Carolina. Many times, this can either be done online, or by trading emails to complete the documentation. This can save time, and money, especially in an uncontested divorce where both parties are in agreement about all of the issues surrounding the action.
Our favorite resource for a fast and effective online divorce is: 3 Step Divorce.
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They aim to make it easy – and they certainly deliver.
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- $299 flat-fee with no hidden charges
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- Immediate access to completed forms
- Assurance of 100% court-approval (or your money back!)
3 Step Divorce also boasts the highest customer rating in the industry (4.6 stars based on 1,575 reviews).
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However, once paperwork is completed, regardless of how it is completed, you must still file the documentation in person at the Clerk of Courts in the county where you live. You will need to file two copies and also make arrangements to have those papers served on your spouse as well.
Filing for divorce in North Carolina without using a lawyer
It is possible to file for Absolute Divorce in North Carolina without using a lawyer if you meet residency requirements of having lived in the state for at least six months, you have been physically separated for at least one year, you do not want spousal support and you do not want a court-ordered division of assets.
Another way to go through a divorce is by using the services of a mediator, as long as both you and your spouse agree on this option. Over the course of one or more sessions, a mediator will review financial documents, forms and worksheets as part of a discovery process and then guide you and your spouse through a series of discussions about the outstanding issues, attempting to peacefully resolve things such as child support and custody, alimony and a division of assets.
Once these issues are resolved, a mediator will draft a Memorandum of Understanding and you will file this document with the court as part of your divorce process. Going this route saves time, money and stress in most cases.
How much will it cost?
The cost to file for an Absolute Divorce in North Carolina is $225. It is payable to the Clerk of the Court in the county where you file your paperwork. In addition, when you file you must also serve your spouse will the filed paperwork. Most of the time, this is done by having the county sheriff complete proof of service. The cost for this is an additional $30. Depending on the county where papers are filed, there may also be some added miscellaneous costs as well.
In some instances, it may be possible to ask a judge to waive the fees associated with a filing by completing and submitting a Petition to Sue as an Indigent. You will need to have it notarized and give it to the clerk with you file your complaint.
If there are any unresolved issues regarding your divorce, you can expect to pay an attorney legal fees that will range from $200 to $500 per hour depending on how complex your divorce is and how many hours it will take to resolve those issues. You will also need to pay some sort of a retainer up front to start the process.
If you decide to use a mediator or an arbitrator, expect your costs to be somewhere between $3,000 and $7,000, and possibly more. In some cases, a judge may require a couple to go through mediation as part of the divorce process.
Fully contested divorces can run into the tens of thousands of dollars depending on how contentious the divorce is, what kind of assets are involved, and how much disagreement there is with child custody and support issues.
How long does it take to get a divorce in North Carolina?
To go through an uncontested Absolute Divorce, you must meet the separation requirement of being apart from your spouse for at least one year before you can file a petition for divorce.
Once the paperwork has been filed and served, your spouse has 30 days to respond to the complaint. In some cases, it is possible to petition the court for a 30-day extension.
But if you are going through an Absolute Divorce and there are unresolved issues, then a divorce could take much longer, ranging from several months to one or two years, or even longer, depending on the circumstances of your case.
Working with a certified divorce financial analyst?
Every divorce has financial issues that need to be addressed. In some cases, a family law attorney can provide all the information you need.
But if you have a degree of financial complexity, you should consider working with a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA).
A CDFA can help you understand the long-term impact of your decisions so you can weigh the pros and cons. In fact, working with a CDFA can actually lower the cost of your divorce (by giving you more clarity to make decisions which cuts down on the back-and-forth negotiations).
Bifurcation of marital status in North Carolina
Bifurcation means that both parties in a divorce can legally divide their divorce into two stages. The first part satisfies the grounds for the divorce. The marriage is terminated at that point. Bifurcation means that the financial aspects of the divorce such as child custody, visitation, child support, alimony or other contentious issues that may have stalled or that have become major sticking points will be finalized at a later date.
North Carolina does allow bifurcated divorces, meaning that each claim associated with the divorce, including the divorce itself, are considered separate claims.
Can I cancel, refuse, contest, stop or reverse a divorce in North Carolina?
If a spouse wants to get a divorce in North Carolina, you cannot stop them. Because North Carolina is a no-fault divorce state, the reason for the divorce will have no bearing on whether or not a spouse can file for divorce. An Absolute Divorce can be granted in North Carolina after you have lived separate and apart from your spouse for one year and you meet residency requirements, or on the grounds that the spouse suffers from incurable insanity.
At best, a spouse can contest a divorce complaint, but this will probably only delay the inevitable.
What is a divorce decree?
A divorce degree is a legal document that establishes proof that an Absolute Divorce is final in North Carolina. A Final Decree is signed by a judge and dated by a county clerk, formally ending a marriage.
The decree is also a summary of the rights and responsibilities of each party, including financial responsibilities and a division of assets. it also covers child custody, visitation, alimony, child support and other similar issues.
It is a legally binding document, and if either party does not meet the requirements and obligations set forth in the decree, the other party can take legal action to correct any deficiencies.
What is a divorce certificate?
Once an Absolute Divorce has been granted in North Carolina, the information is recorded with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. To get a copy of the basic information of your divorce, you can order a divorce certificate from NCDHHS.
This will not contain the full terms of a divorce like a Final Decree will. Instead, it will only verify the divorce has taken place, along with the date and a few other identifying pieces of information. Certificates are sometimes used to prove a divorce has taken place so that a person can change their name, or they can provide proof so that they can get married again.
To order a copy of a divorce certificate, you can go online at the NCDHHS website. Processing typically takes about six weeks. You can also get same-day expedited service on a walk-in basis at the agency’s Raleigh location. An appointment is required, and you will need to provide an acceptable form of ID. Hours to walk-in are Monday through Friday, 8 am to 3 pm.
Changing Your Name
When preparing your divorce forms, you will be presented either an option to either restore your former name or request a court order for changing names.
The name change will be granted as part of your divorce. You may either receive a separate court order making your name change official, or else have your name change recorded on the final divorce decree. Either of these documents are accepted with all US agencies and organizations as evidence of your name change.
It takes a long time to reach out to each company and figure out what to send where, so we recommend using an Easy Name Change kit to cut out the 10+ hours of research and paperwork that follows.
Recommended Divorce Resources
There are a lot of divorce resources that make big claims. We’ve tested a bunch of them. Most fall short. A few stand above the rest.
These are the tools and resources we’re excited to share with you because we know they can help you have a better divorce.
If you’re looking for recommendations in any of the following areas, we’ve got you covered:
- Online divorce
- QDRO preparation to divide retirement plans and pensions
- Masterclass on ninja tricks to negotiating with a narcissist
- Co-parenting apps
- Personal finance and budgeting apps
- Best place to sell your engagement ring
- eHarmony (for after your divorce)
- And a whole lot more