Equitable Distribution

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Equitable Distribution
Statutes:N.C.G.S. § 50-20
N.C.G.S. § 50-21
DescriptionHow property and debt are distributed between the spouses
TakeawayMost of the time, most property/debt is divided 50/50, regardless of which spouse's name is on the property or debt.

Equitable Distribution means the fair distribution of property and debt between the spouses in a divorce. The courts generally presume a 50/50 distribution is fair,[1] regardless of which spouse is on a title or account. However, there are many rules and exceptions.[2] There are three steps to determining a 50/50 distribution: (1) list and categorize property/debt, (2) value each item on the list, (3) distribute the property/debt between the spouses.

When Can a Lawsuit be Filed

You can file a lawsuit for equitable distribution anytime after you and your spouse begin living in separate homes[3] but before the court signs a divorce decree.[4] Since the spouses have to live in separate homes for at least one year before filing for a divorce decree,[5] there is always at least a one-year window to pursue equitable distribution.

If the spouses still live together, they can negotiate a separation agreement prior to moving into separate homes,[6] one spouse can move out, or a spouse can try to evict the other through a "Divorce from Bed and Board" lawsuit. If a court has already signed a divorce decree, and that divorce was secured after proper, normal service of process,[7] both spouses will own whatever property is in their name.

Financial Disclosures

Once a lawsuit is started, the spouse that first made the claim has 90 days to complete an "Inventory Affidavit" and a "Certification of Initial Disclosures". The other spouse has 30 days to share their own financial disclosures.[8] The initial Inventory Affidavit is not binding at trial.[8] Each courthouse uses different forms for the initial Inventory Affidavit and have different requirements regarding what records need to be shared. However, generally there should be records to support the alleged value of each item on the Inventory Affidavit, except for trivial items like "other household goods." If one spouse refuses to provide disclosures, the other spouse can file a "Motion to Compel" asking the court to order the spouse to comply with the rules.


Whether you negotiate, go to trial, or provide mandatory financial disclosures for court, you'll need to know how to categorize each item of property/debt as "marital," "divisible," or "separate."


"Marital Property" is any property or debt acquired during the marriage and before the separation date,[9] except for property acquired by inheritance or gift[10] or debts that did not benefit the marriage.[11] Most of the time, most of the property and debt of either spouse is "marital". Marital property also includes things like pensions and retirement accounts.[9]


"Divisible property" is any gain or loss in value of marital property after the separation date and not caused by a spouse's post-separation labor.[12] For example, profits from renting out a house, changes in value in a mutual fund, or payments received for work performed during the marriage can all be divisible property if the house/mutual fund/work is marital property.[12]


Separate property is property or debt acquired (a) before the marriage, (b) after the separation date, (c) by inheritance or gift, (d) from other separate property, and/or (e) a professional or business license.[13] However, a gift from one spouse to the other is usually considered marital, unless the spouse's indicated otherwise when the gift was made.[13]


Once property is categorized, the value of each item as of the separation date must be determined.[14] Except with divisible property, this is not the item's current value, but the value as of the separation date.[14] If you and your spouse are cooperating, any dispute over value can usually be resolved by agreeing on an appraiser. If you and your spouse are not cooperating, you may need to pay an appraiser to appear in court as an expert witness. However, you can also use other (less expensive) evidence as to something's value.


At the end of the process, a judge or agreement distributes the property and debt between the spouses. Although the court can distribute property any way the judge feels is fair, there is a strong presumption in favor of a 50/50 distribution.[15] That doesn't mean a couch needs to be cut in half so that each spouse can have their share, but each spouse walks away with 50% of the total net value of everything that is considered "marital" or "divisible".[16] Small adjustments from 50/50 are common, when one spouse paid for expenses that both spouses were responsible for after the separation date. There is typically a "Distributive Award," which is a cash payment one spouse makes to the other to balance the property and debt to 50/50.

Other Resources

  • You can download King @ Law's template ED Statement here. An ED Statement is an excel spreadsheet used to calculate the total net value of what each spouse is keeping and the Distributive Award.

Contact an Attorney

This wiki is provided by North Carolina divorce lawyer David King and his firm King @ Law. You can learn more about King @ Law at www.kinglawnc.com. If you are looking to hire an attorney, have questions, or would like to contribute to this wiki, you can contact attorney King using any of the following methods:


  1. §50-20(c). "There shall be an equal division by using net value of marital property and net value of divisible property unless the court determines that an equal division is not equitable. "
  2. See §50-20(b)(2) regarding "separate property" such as inheritance, gifts, and pre-marital property that are not divided 50/50.
  3. §50-21(a). "At any time after a husband and wife begin to live separate and apart from each other"
  4. § 50-11(e). "An absolute divorce obtained within this State shall destroy the right of a spouse to equitable distribution under G.S. 50-20 unless the right is asserted prior to judgment of absolute divorce..."
  5. § 50-6. "...if and when the husband and wife have lived separate and apart for one year..."
  6. § 52-10(e). "Contracts between husband and wife not inconsistent with public policy are valid..."
  7. § 50-11(e) and (f). Describing exceptions for lawsuits for divorce secured through improper service or through service by publication.
  8. 8.0 8.1 §50-21(a)
  9. 9.0 9.1 §50-20(b)(1). "Marital property" means all real and personal property acquired by either spouse or both spouses during the course of the marriage and before the date of the separation of the parties, and presently owned"
  10. §50-20(b)(2). "Marital Property...except property which is separate property under subdivision (2) of this subsection... (2)...acquired by a spouse by devise, descent, or gift during the course of the marriage"
  11. Warren v. Warren, (NC App, June 16, 2015). Finding that student loan debt was not marital, when it only benefited the one spouse's future prospects.
  12. 12.0 12.1 §50-20(b)(4)(a). "...appreciation and diminution in value of marital property... except that appreciation or diminution in value which is the result of postseparation actions or activities of a spouse"
  13. 13.0 13.1 §50-20(b)(2).
  14. 14.0 14.1 §50-21(b). "For purposes of equitable distribution, marital property shall be valued as of the date of the separation of the parties..."
  15. §50-20(c). "There shall be an equal division by using net value of marital property and net value of divisible property unless the court determines that an equal division is not equitable."
  16. §50-20(e). "...it shall be presumed in every action that an in-kind distribution of marital or divisible property is equitable."