North Carolina's Definition of Marital Property

Understanding Marital Property in North Carolina

In North Carolina, as in many states, the division of property during a divorce is a critical concern for both parties. The definition of what constitutes marital property versus separate property is central to equitable distribution proceedings. North Carolina General Statutes Chapter 50-20 is the key legal framework guiding this distinction.

Marital Property Defined

Under North Carolina law, marital property refers to all real and personal property acquired by either spouse or both spouses during the course of the marriage and up until the date of separation. This includes, but is not limited to, income earned by either spouse, real estate purchased, vehicles, retirement accounts, investments, and even debts incurred. It's important to note that property acquired after the date of separation is typically considered separate property.

For example, if a couple purchases a home after getting married and before they separate, this home would generally be considered marital property. Similarly, if one spouse opens a retirement account after the marriage and contributes to it until separation, the funds in that account are likely marital property.

Separate Property

Contrasting with marital property is separate property, which includes assets acquired before the marriage, after the date of separation or during the marriage but through inheritance or as a gift from a third party. Separate property also includes any items exchanged for or derived from separate property assets.

An example of separate property might be an inheritance received by one spouse from a relative. Even if this inheritance is received during the marriage, it remains that spouse's separate property unless actions are taken that could be seen as commingling it with marital assets.

Divisible Property

There is also a category known as divisible property, which refers to passive changes in value of marital or divisible property after separation but before distribution. This can include things like interest earnings or fluctuations in investment value.

The Importance of the Date of Separation

The date of separation is a pivotal moment in determining what is considered marital property. This date marks the cessation of the marital partnership in North Carolina and serves as a cutoff for when assets are considered marital. It's essential for each party to establish and agree upon this date as it has significant implications for the division of assets.

Equitable Distribution Process

In North Carolina, marital property is divided through an equitable distribution process, which aims to be fair but not necessarily equal. Courts consider various factors such as income, length of marriage, health and age of spouses, and contributions to homemaking or earning capacity when dividing assets. The court will categorize assets as marital or separate and then proceed to value and distribute them accordingly.

Historical Context

The concept of marital property has evolved over time. Historically, legal systems often did not recognize the joint nature of matrimonial assets. The shift toward recognizing both spouses' contributions to the marriage came with societal changes that acknowledged that homemaking and childcare are valuable contributions alongside financial earnings.


The classification of assets as marital or separate in North Carolina is nuanced and can significantly impact divorce proceedings. Understanding these distinctions is crucial for anyone going through a separation in North Carolina. Couples facing divorce should consult with an experienced family law attorney who can help navigate these complex regulations and advocate for their interests during equitable distribution.