Are Legal Separation Papers Necessary in North Carolina?

By Heather Frances J.D.

In most states, spouses must address the terms of their divorce at the same time they end their marriage, but North Carolina’s divorce process is unique in that it allows spouses to divorce without addressing issues like property division, alimony or custody. A North Carolina divorce decree simply ends the marriage, nothing more. Therefore, a signed separation agreement can be very important, so that spouses have something to govern their conduct during the divorce and settlement process.


North Carolina only recognizes two grounds, or reasons, for divorce: insanity and separation for at least one year. Unlike many other states, North Carolina does not permit spouses to file for divorce on fault-based grounds like adultery, abandonment or cruelty. Instead, North Carolina spouses must live in separate houses during the one-year separation period, but this separation period is not considered a “legal separation,” nor does North Carolina law address legal separations.

Separation Requirements

Spouses do not have to formally document their separation for it to be effective as grounds for divorce or file any paperwork with the court to establish a date of separation. Though spouses cannot legally file for divorce until they have been separated for at least a year, courts typically do not ask the spouses to provide proof of the separation period. Instead, North Carolina courts take spouses at their word that their separation was at least one year and one day. Although North Carolina does not require spouses to form or file a separation agreement, it may be wise for them to still create one addressing important issues, like child custody, during the divorce.

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Settling on Terms

Divorcing spouses must address the terms of their divorce, including topics such as custody, property division and support. They can do this by negotiating a written, signed separation agreement. If they cannot agree, they can ask the court to decide these issues for them by filing a second petition with the divorce court, but this is a separate action from the divorce itself. Though neither a separation agreement nor a petition asking the court to decide these issues is technically required, if the spouses fail to reach agreement and do not ask the court for a resolution before the divorce is complete, they forfeit the right to do so after the divorce is final.


Issues regarding children are an exception to the rule that issues must be addressed before the divorce is final. Parents can go to court at any time to resolve custody and child support issues, but they cannot use their child custody or support issues to reopen issues of property division or spousal support after the divorce has been finalized if they did not address them during the divorce process. The litigation of child-related and other issues may take place after the divorce is final, but the petition reserving the right to have the court decide these issues later must be filed before the divorce is final. Otherwise, the court can only address child support and child custody after the divorce is final.

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North Carolina Divorce a Year After Separating or Signing a Separation Agreement


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How to Separate in a Marriage

Divorce isn't for everyone--at least not immediately. For any number of reasons, spouses might want to live separately for a while before taking the final step to officially terminate their marriage. Depending on where you live, there may be more than one way to do this. Some states recognize legal separations, but a few don't, including Texas, Delaware, Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana. This doesn't mean you can't separate if you live in one of these states. It just means courts in these states will not issue a judgment of separation, so you'll have to create a separation agreement instead.

Do You Have to Wait 30 Days for a Decree of Divorce in Arkansas?

Even if divorcing spouses agree on all marital issues, such as custody and property division, Arkansas imposes a 30-day waiting period on all divorces. This means the court will not issue a divorce decree until at least 30 days have passed since the date the divorce petition was filed.

Does Someone Have to Be at the Divorce Court Date in North Carolina?

In some respects, North Carolina is the easiest state in which to divorce. You don't have to divide your property or debts before filing, and it's not necessary to resolve issues of custody or support. The court can terminate your marriage without addressing any of these issues, but if you don't file a separate complaint to resolve property issues or alimony, you're barred from going back to court later to sort these things out. You don't have to appear in court to finalize the divorce itself, provided you have a lawyer.

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