Category: Property Division

Jim Siemens Argues Before Court of Appeals in Sparta, NC

Court of Appeals

Jim Siemens presenting his argument before Judge Zachary, Chief Judge McGee and Judge Calabria.

Jim Siemens traveled last week to the mountain town of Sparta, North Carolina to present an oral argument before the Court of Appeals. The argument was part of a special session celebrating the 50th anniversary of the NC Court of Appeals, holding a session of court in a hometown or county with a special connection for each judge. Jim’s case followed a criminal case from Watauga County, and the session drew a small crowd from the Sparta community.

Jim appeared before Chief Judge Linda McGee, Judge Valerie Zachary and Judge Ann Marie Calabria in the Alleghany County Courthouse. He argued in support of three orders on the issues of equitable distribution, alimony and child support. All three orders were drafted by Jim and entered last year by the district court judge presiding in Buncombe County, and are now challenged on appeal by the Defendant.

Jim defended his positions on valuing marital assets including retirement accounts and real property; the use of date of distribution exchange rates to value Brazilian real property; the application of the terms of the parties’ premarital agreement for an equal division of the marital estate; and determining the Plaintiff’s status as a dependent spouse for establishing terms of alimony.

The Court was particularly interested in the issue of valuing the marital portion of a Thrift Savings Plan and subsequently funded IRA and annuity in the equitable distribution trial. Jim gave further support for his argument pertaining to valuing deferred compensation using a coverture fraction in the context of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50-20.1 and Watkins v. Watkins.*

After Jim’s strong argument before the panel, he now waits for a decision from the Court. More information about the judges on the panel and the Court of Appeals of North Carolina can be found on More information about the special session can be found on the Twitter page for the NC Judicial Branch.

*Watkins v. Watkins, 228 N.C. App. 548, 746 S.E.2d 394 (2013).

Jim Siemens, Court of Appeals

Jim arguing before the N.C. Court of Appeals. Photo by Chris Mears/NC Judicial Branch.

Alleghany County Courthouse

Alleghany County Courthouse in Sparta, N.C. Photo by Chris Mears/NC Judicial Branch.







Jim Siemens, Court of Appeals

Jim answering questions from the panel.    Photo by Chris Mears/NC Judicial Branch.

Court of Appeals

Judge Calabria, Judge McGee and Judge Zachary. Photo by Chris Mears/NC Judicial Branch.



Merits of Mediation in Dispute Resolution

This post is about the merits of mediation, and the role I can play as your lawyer when you are thinking about using a mediator to resolve issues with your partner, spouse or former spouse. While I mediate disputes when asked, there are many good mediators in town, and I’m as happy being a lawyer as I am a mediator. Mediators mediate. Lawyers advocate and advise. No lawyer/mediator can be both in one case; there are rules of professional conduct that now prohibit this practice. Understanding the difference between the role of a mediator and the role of a lawyer will serve you well.

Mediation is, in my estimation, the most cost effective means for resolving disputes of all kinds, and family law disputes in particular. When I say cost effective, I am talking not only about money, but also emotional expense. When families change in configuration (separation), when new households are established, and when children are forced to navigate new environments, airing grievances in a public record (a court file) and in a public place (the Buncombe County Courthouse) can be destructive. Sometimes there is no alternative, and there are members of the Siemens Family Law Group that are highly skilled litigators when the only alternative is court.

Back to money. If you would prefer to spend your money on yourself or your kids, rather than a legal battle, here is my advice:

1. Find a family law lawyer for initial consultation. Ideally you will find a specialist like me, or an associate working under that specialist. You should expect to pay for that consultation (I charge $300, my associates charge less). What you should expect to get at that consultation are answers to all your questions. Prepare as many questions in advance as you can. What you should also expect to get is an education regarding family law in North Carolina, how that law might be applied to the facts of your case, how you might settle your case in mediation, and how the Buncombe County Family Court might view your case if you can’t. At a good law firm, you should get good counsel. This counsel might go beyond the law. If you meet with me, I’ll give you my honest perspective as a lawyer with 20 years of experience in Buncombe County; as a single parent of a now 7-year-old; and as man in mid-career who enjoys the ability to provide clear, seasoned, sound advice.

2. Go to mediation. Sarah Olson is a seasoned lawyer and mediator with a background in psychology, accounting and parenting. She has an informative website at Other good mediators include Gary Cash, Rebecca Knight, Sarah Corley, Michael Drye, Barbara Davis, Rhonda Moorefield and Patrick McCroskey. We can help you get in touch with any one of these individuals. The mediator you choose should have a working understanding of family law in North Carolina, the Buncombe County Family Court in particular, an ability to assess financial matters, and if children are involved, some life experience or training related to child development. Ideally, the mediator you choose will facilitate a conversation that results in a meeting of the minds, otherwise known as an agreement. At the conclusion of mediation, the mediator must ensure that any agreement that is reached is summarized in written form. The written summary of the mediator is a road map for settlement, but not the actual legal settlement document.

3. So, after mediation, go back to the lawyer you consulted initially with the agreement your mediator has reduced into writing. The lawyer you consulted should be able to pick up on your last conversation with him or her, take the mediator’s road map (the mediator’s memorandum), and get you to the destination (a binding legal document). We call that binding legal document a contract of separation and property settlement agreement. The legal document may have custody provisions in it. The legal document may, or may not, provide that it is to become a court order upon divorce. Your lawyer should be prepared to talk with you in detail about these procedural nuances.

If you follow these steps, you will come through the process of separation and divorce in the best way possible. You will expend less emotional energy. Your children will avoid unnecessary wounds. And, you will save money. I’d like to talk with you in more detail about this approach in an initial consultation. If you don’t talk to me, talk to one of my associates, or try to find someone equally qualified.

Why Mediation Works

“Reactive devaluation”.  That is the take away term from a mediation training I attended in May of 2012.  The term describes a phenomenon I”ve identified as a mediator, divorce lawyer and one time Husband, but it took the training to give that phenomenon a name.

In the context of divorce mediation, parties generally harbor negative feelings about their spouse or former spouse.  Those negative feelings compromise the ability of one party to hear the other, no matter how valid or important the message.  Polarized parties react by devaluing the message because they don’t like the messenger.

For a while, I thought mediation worked because parties in mediation recognize they can control the outcome and avoid the uncertainty of discretion exercised by a judge.  I still think that’s true in part.  Good lawyers in mediation certainly understand controlling risk.

But, as I continue to mediate for parties in the context of divorce, it is increasingly clear to me that it is my ability to serve as a substitute messenger, and a filter, that brings people to agreement.  As a mediator, I find it rewarding to carry and deliver important messages that might otherwise be reactively devalued and not received.

There is a connection between this concept of “reactive devaluation” and Stephen Covey’s 6th habit of empathic listening, the habit of seeking first to understand before being understood.  Negative feelings and emotions can interfere with the implementation of that habit.

At the recent recommendation of a great judge, I’ve read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning.  This book was foundational for Covey, and it ties nicely into the concept of reactive devaluation.  Frankl (and Covey) emphasize that we have the freedom to choose, at all moments of life, how we will react, even in the worst of circumstances.

Mediation is a great tool when you are the messenger getting shot, the one doing the shooting, or both. You have the freedom to choose how you will react to the difficult circumstances of divorce.  We can help you hear important messages.  We can help you deliver them.

Are you prepared for a possible “Gray Divorce?”

While browsing the Asheville Citizen-Times website on August 13, 2012, we came across a terrific article by guest columnist Haleh Moddasser about “Gray Divorce.”  Although the article targets older women,  we feel Ms. Moddasser’s article contains important information for all of us,  regardless of gender and whether you may be young, middle-aged or whatever comes after that.  Given that family and financial circumstances can change unexpectedly, be it by death, accident, or divorce, it pays to plan ahead and be informed. Follow the link to learn more:




Divorce: Dividing Property

Separation and Divorce:  Dividing Assets and Debt

           In your spare time during your adult life and for the length of your marriage, you’ve carefully managed and accumulating assets.  Maybe you’ve not so carefully managed and have accumulated significant debt. Now the marriage is ending and you’re having to learn a whole new language to keep track of what goes where and who owes what to whom.  This is the language of equitable distribution, and it is an issue that has to be cleared up before you can safely obtain a divorce judgment.

The whole point of equitable distribution is to classify property as separate, marital, divisible and/or non-statutory so that each party can walk away with their fair share of the assets and of the debt.  Getting the right piece of property (or debt) in the right category will help you keep track of what goes where.  But what are those categories, and what to I list under each one?  What follows is a very basic description of the categories designed to help you speak the language of equitable distribution and increase the productivity of your initial meeting with your attorney.*  There is alot of information contained in this entry, but equitable distribution can be a tricky issue that requires precise language.  Ensure that the attorney you trust with the division of your assets speaks this language fluently.

Marital, separate, divisible and non-statutory: The property or debt must be classified as either (a) marital, (b) separate, or (c) divisible. Yes, as with all things legal, there are times when the property or debt will not fit into any of these definitions, and thus, is something else. I call it, for lack of a better term, (d) non-statutory. It is not subject to distribution, but it can be considered as a distributional factor by the court when dividing the stuff that IS divisible. An example of non-statutory property is: a commission entirely earned (house was listed after date of separation) and received by the real estate agent spouse after the date of separation and before the date of the equitable distribution (ED) trial.  Although the earnings of one spouse after the date of separation are generally that spouse’s separate property, the court will consider this commission as part of the “big picture” when allocating assets and debt that are divisible.

Active and passive increases in value of separate property: Active increases are those increases in the value of separate property occurring during the marriage and before the date of separation, caused by the effort of either or both spouses, e.g., the husband paints his barn. These increases are marital. Passive increases are those increases in the value of separate property occurring during the marriage and before the date of separation, caused by something other than the efforts of either or both spouses, e.g., inflation.  These increases are separate. There is a presumption any increase in the value of separate property occurring during the marriage and before the date of separation is marital.  The burden thus, shifts to the party claiming the increase to be passive to prove it. There is no such thing as an active or passive increase in the pre-separation value of marital property or in the post-separation value of separate property. Any post-separation increase in the value of separate property is the property of the spouse owning the separate property and thus, is either his non-statutory property or his separate property (under a source of funds theory) and properly treated as a section 50-20(c)(1) distributional factor.

Active and passive increases (decreases) in value of marital property: We see alot of this related to the bursting of real estate bubble in 2008.  Active increases (decreases) are those increases (decreases) in the value of marital property occurring after the date of separation and before the ED trial, caused by some post-separation action or activity of a spouse. N.C.G.S. Sect. 50-20(b)(4)a. This increase (decrease) is not divisible property, but is a distributional factor under N.C.G.S. Sect. 50-20(c)(11a) or (12). Passive increases (decreases) are those increases (decreases) in the value of marital property occurring after the date of separation and before the date of the ED trial, and caused by something other than a post-separation action or activity of a spouse, e.g., inflation. N.C.G.S. Sect. 50-20(b)(4)a and c. This increase (decrease) is divisible property. As neither party has the benefit of a presumption with respect to post-separation events/activities, the party claiming the increase (decrease) to be divisible has the burden of proof. If that burden is not met, i.e., no proof the increase was passive, the increase will be treated as a distributional factor. This is tantamount to saying there is a presumption the post-separation increases (decreases) in marital property are active.

Active and passive income from marital property: Passive income from marital property received after the date of separation and before the ED trial is divisible property, e.g., dividends from marital stock. N.C.G.S. Sect. 50-20(b)(4)c. Income received from marital property after the date of separation and before the ED trial resulting from the post-separation efforts of a spouse (active income), e.g., increase in value of marital property stock portfolio occurring as a result of the management of account by the husband, is not divisible, not marital and not separate. N.C.G.S. Sect. 50-20(b)(4)a; Sect. 50-20(b)(1); and Sect. 50-20(b)(2). It is this spouse’s non-statutory property and is properly treated as a N.C.G.S. Sect. 50-20(c) (11a) distributional factor.

Transmutation: This occurs when something happens to alter or change the classification of property during the course of the marriage. Marital property is rarely transmuted into separate property, although it can occur, e.g., spouse (who has right to manage marital funds) uses marital funds to purchase a gift to give to his wife and makes clear his intention that the gift is to be his wife’s separate property. Most often our concern is with whether separate property is transmuted into marital property. An example: separate funds are commingled with marital property, e.g., placed in a joint checking account, during the marriage and before the date of separation. Has the character of the separate funds been altered? Yes, a transmutation of the separate funds into marital funds has occurred unless the party claiming a portion of the funds to be his separate property is able to trace those separate funds into their current form.  In essence, the commingling of separate and marital assets, occurring during the marriage and before the date of separation, raises a rebuttable presumption that all the assets are marital.

Marital property presumption: Although the ED statute speaks in terms of a marital property presumption, N.C.G.S. Sect. 50-20(b)(1) it does not mean all property owned by one or both of the spouses is presumed marital. To be entitled to the presumption, a spouse claiming a property is marital is required to prove it was acquired by one or both of the spouses during the course of the marriage, before the date of the separation and presently owned.  If this fact is shown and there is no contrary evidence, the property must be classified as marital. If the other spouse, however, is able to show the same property was acquired by gift or bequest or in exchange for his separate property, the asset must be classified as his separate property. The failure in the burden of proof by the party claiming the asset to be marital, however, does not mandate its classification as separate. The party claiming the asset to be her separate property has the burden of showing the asset is her separate property, which can be met by showing it was acquired by her before the marriage. If neither party meets their burden, the property passes outside ED and thus, the party having title retains ownership.

Marital gift presumption: Sometimes known as the McLean presumption. A titling of separate real property in the entireties raises a rebuttable presumption the grantor intended a gift of his separate properties to the marital estate.  To rebut the presumption there must be clear and convincing evidence no gift was intended. If the presumption is rebutted, the property retains its separate property classification under the exchange provision of section 50-20(b)(2). If the presumption cannot be rebutted, the property must be classified as marital. If not rebutted, the grantor spouse is entitled, however, to have his separate property contribution to the marital estate considered as a distributional factor. The McLean presumption does not apply to personal property.

Marital debt: Debt, like assets, must be classified, valued and distributed.  Debt is marital if acquired by one or both spouses during the marriage and before the date of separation, presently owed, and acquired for the benefit of the marital estate. As with assets, how the debt is titled (which spouse owes the debt) is not determinative. The biggest controversy here is whether the debt was for the benefit of the marital estate.  An example: dental bill incurred by one spouse and owing at time of separation has been held not to be marital. Another example: credit used to purchase clothing for a spouse is generally considered marital. There is no presumption that a debt accumulated during the marriage and before separation is for the benefit of the marital estate. Thus, the burden is on the party claiming the debt to be marital to prove it is presently owed by one or both of the parties, was incurred during the marriage and before the date of separation and was for the benefit of the marital estate. Beware: (1) if the debt is in the name of both spouses, is classified as marital and distributed to the husband and the husband does not pay the debt, the creditor (who is not a party to the ED action) can proceed with collection against either or both parties; (2) if the joint debt is classified as marital and distributed to the wife to pay and the wife petitions for a discharge in bankruptcy and that petition is granted, her obligations to the creditor and to the husband under ED can be discharged, thus, eliminating any claim he has against the wife for failure to abide by the ED order.

Divisible debt: Increases in marital debt and any finance charges, i.e., interest, related to the marital debt arising after the date of separation and before the date of the ED trial is divisible debt. N.C.G.S. Sect. 50-20(b)(4)d. Also, any post-separation (pre ED trial) payments made by a spouse on a marital debt is divisible property. Id. The discretion heretofore lodged in the trial court to treat these post-separation payments as a distributional factor or provide a direct credit to the spouse making the payments (see Hay supra) is eliminated. If the payments are made pursuant to a post-separation order, can these payments be classified as divisible in light of N.C.G.S. Sect. 50-20(f) which states that ED should be made “without regard” to support payments arising out of the marriage? The issue has not been decided by the courts. It appears, however, that N.C.G.S. Sect. 50-20(f) merely prohibits post-separation/alimony payments (arising from the marriage at issue) from being considered as a distributional factor. It does not attempt to prevent the proper classification of property or debt. New debt acquired after the date of separation and related to marital property, e.g., repairs to marital home, does not appear to be a divisible debt and could be treated as a distributional factor or the trial court could provide a credit to the party making the payment. A good argument can be made that post-separation payment of taxes and casualty insurance on marital property is marital debt to the extent the taxes and/or insurance premium accrued before the date of separation.

Acquired: Property is acquired when legal title comes into the husband and/or wife. Property is also acquired when some third party has legal title but is holding the property in trust (express, resulting or constructive) for the benefit of the husband and/or wife. If a spouse claims property owned by some third party is a marital asset, that spouse has the burden of showing the existence of the trust and the third party must be joined as a party to the ED action. This third party is a necessary party within the meaning of Rule 19 of the Rules of Civil Procedure. Although the issue of the existence of a trust is normally a question for the jury, in the context of the ED action there is no right to a jury trial.

Source of funds: The general principle provides that if the source of the funds used to purchase the property was marital, the property acquired with those funds is also marital. This is also known as tracing. It is an easy concept if the exchange occurs during the marriage and before the date of separation. What if marital funds, existing at the date of separation, are used to purchase property after the date of separation? Is this new asset marital, separate, divisible or non-statutory? By definition it is not marital, separate or divisible. Nonetheless, the source of funds theory has been used in the past to qualify the post-separation exchange asset as marital The same principle would appear to justify the classification of fire insurance proceeds, received after the date of separation, where the fire policy insured the marital home which burned either before or after the date of separation. Did the adoption of the divisible property statute, reflecting an effort to deal with post-separation events, signal an end to use of source of funds as a methodology for classifying post-separation exchanges? It can be argued it does, but I don’t think so. That statute does not even address post-separation exchanges of marital property, suggesting the legislature was aware of our case law on the source of funds theory and elected to leave it in place. Furthermore, what the Court of Appeals had to say before the divisible property statute, seems to still apply: without thesource of funds theory, there would be “an incentive for a spouse to convert marital assets titled in his or her name as soon as the parties separated, thereby undermining the very point of the (ED) Act – to alleviate the inequities caused by the title theory approach to the distribution of marital property.  The lesson: property acquired in fact after the date of separation may indeed be properly classified as marital property because in theory it was acquired before the date of separation.

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* This entry borrowed heavily from a manuscript by attorney and former Judge K. Edward Greene entitled “The Language of Equitable Distribution”.  We thank Mr. Greene for his permission to use his work.  We have removed case citations, but are happy to provide them upon request.