In a recent opinion, the court of appeals held that a trial court has no authority to annul a marriage by summary judgment. Hill v. Durette, (N.C. App, March 19, 2019). This case reminds us that while the Rules of Civil Procedure apply to domestic relations cases generally, there are significant limitations on the use of rules that relieve the court of the obligation to make findings of fact based on evidence presented to the court before entering certain types of domestic orders.
In 2015, I wrote two blog posts summarizing the law relating to the use of contempt to enforce orders to pay support. No Default Judgment in Contempt (May 1, 2015) and Contempt: Establishing Ability to Pay (May 8, 2015). Recent appellate opinions justify revisiting this topic.
North Carolina law long has provided that court-ordered alimony terminates upon the death of either the supporting or dependent spouse and upon the remarriage of the dependent spouse. Since 1995, the law provides that even if the dependent spouse does not remarry, alimony also will terminate if the receiver engages in cohabitation. Our appellate courts have struggled to provide clear guidance regarding how to determine when a relationship amounts to cohabitation. Last December, in Setzler v. Setzler, 781 SE2d 64 (NC App., 2015), the court of appeals told us that the primary purpose of the cohabitation rule is to discourage “bad faith” decisions not to remarry and provided the clearest statement to date that cohabitation is proven by showing a relationship that provides economic benefits to the dependent spouse similar to those that would be provided by marriage.
***UPDATE TO POST MAY 2, 2016: On April 26, 2016, the NC Supreme Court granted a temporary stay of the Court of Appeals ruling in the case discussed in this post. See SC docket #152P16-1.
***UPDATE TO POST OCTOBER 2, 2017: On September 29, 2017, the NC Supreme Court reversed the opinion of the Court of Appeals discussed in this post. See Catawba County ex rel. Rackley v. Loggins.
On Tuesday this week, the court of appeals held that a consent order modifying an existing child support order was void because no motion to modify was filed before the consent modification was entered by the court. In Catawba County ex. rel. Rackley v. Loggins, (NC App, April 5, 2016), the court held that GS 50-13.7 clearly requires that a motion in the cause requesting modification be filed in order to invoke the subject matter jurisdiction of the court to enter any further orders in the support case. Without the motion, the court has no subject matter jurisdiction to act.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon in North Carolina for orders to be entered modifying existing custody and support orders without anyone actually filing a motion to modify. This practice is especially common when all parties in the case agree to the modification. The court of appeals now has made it clear that this practice of ignoring required procedure results in invalid, unenforceable orders.
In my last post, Imputing Income: Voluntary Unemployment is Not Enough, I wrote about the bad faith rule; the long-established rule that child support and alimony orders must be based on the actual present income of the parties unless there is cause to impute income. When income is imputed, a support order is based on earning capacity rather than actual income. The bad faith rule provides that earning capacity can be used only when a party is intentionally depressing actual income in deliberate disregard of a support obligation.
So what findings of fact are sufficient to establish bad faith?
Beware. A child support or alimony order should never contain the word “capacity” or the words “ability to earn” unless it also contains the words “bad faith.”
Maybe that statement is a little extreme, but it is intended to make a point. Alimony and child support obligations must be determined based on actual present income. Earning capacity rather than actual income can be used only when a party is intentionally depressing actual income in deliberate disregard of a support obligation. In other words, it is not appropriate for an order to be based on what a person should be earning- or on minimum wage – rather than on what that person actually is earning unless evidence shows the party is acting in bad faith and the court actually includes that conclusion of law in the order.