While there are no doubt numerous ex parte custody orders entered by North Carolina courts daily throughout the state, there is very little appellate guidance regarding the circumstances under which such orders are appropriate and regarding the procedure that should be followed after such an order has been entered. Because these orders are interlocutory and not subject to immediate appeal, we probably never will have much case law to direct us.
Child custody orders can be modified upon a showing that there has been a substantial change in circumstances affecting the welfare of the child(ren) since the entry of the last custody order and upon a showing that modification is in the best interest of the child(ren). GS 50-13.7; Shipman v. Shipman, 357 NC 471 (2003). Three relatively recent opinions from the court of appeals clarify that the required substantial change does not necessarily need to be the development or occurrence of a new circumstance; the required substantial change can be a change in the way an existing circumstance impacts the welfare of the child(ren).
It is not uncommon for third parties to assert rights or claims against parents litigating child custody and child support. For example, grandparents frequently want the court to grant them visitation rights as part of a custody order resolving a dispute between the child’s mother and father. Similarly, the IV-D child support enforcement agency or a non-parent who has been caring for a child often need to assert rights or claims in child support cases pending between the child’s parents.
Before these people can assert claims or rights in an existing case, they must become parties to the case through the process of intervention.
If you’re a sports fan like me, you probably like sports movies. And if you like sports movies, you know the famous line from Jerry Maguire, “show me the money!” That line has some application to abuse, neglect, or dependency cases – specifically when a court is going to order custody or guardianship of a child who has been adjudicated abused, neglected, or dependent to a person who is not the child’s parent. The Juvenile Code requires that the court first verify that the proposed custodian or guardian “will have adequate resources to care appropriately for the juvenile.” G.S. 7B-903(a)(4), -906.1(j), -600(c).* Continue Reading
A few weeks ago, I posted blog about Parenting Coordinators (“PCs”) in Child Custody Cases and noted the ambiguity concerning the court’s authority to respond when a PC requests a hearing pursuant to GS 50-97 and identifies changes that need to be made to the existing custody order. Shortly thereafter, the Court of Appeals provided more guidance on this issue. In Tankala v. Pithavadian, NC App (July 19, 2016), the court held that the strict limitation on a court’s authority to “tweak” custody orders – see Blog “No ‘tweaking’ of Custody Orders Allowed – does not necessarily mean the court cannot address problems identified by a PC.
It is now well established that a parent has a constitutional right to exclusive care, custody and control of his or her child. This constitutional right protects a parent against claims for custody by non-parents. A court cannot apply the best interest of the child test to determine whether a non-parent should have custody of a child unless the court first concludes that the parent has waived her constitutional right to exclusive custody. A parent waives her constitutional right by being unfit, neglecting the welfare of the child, or by conduct otherwise inconsistent with the parent’s protected status. There is no precise definition of conduct inconsistent with protected status and our appellate courts have provided no comprehensive list of actions that will result in a parent’s loss of constitutional rights. Instead, whether a parent’s conduct has been inconsistent with protected status is an issue that must be determined on a case-by-case basis. The non-parent seeking custody has the burden of proving the parent’s inconsistent conduct by clear, cogent and convincing evidence. For more detail on this law, see Family Law Bulletin, Third Party Custody and Visitation Actions.
What if a parent signs a consent custody order that grants custody rights to a non-parent third party? Does the parent lose the ability to assert her constitutional right to custody in subsequent custody proceedings? For example, if a parent agrees to a court order granting custody to grandmother, does the parent have the constitutional right to regain custody from grandmother in the future? Or, if another non-parent wants custody or visitation after parent has entered into a consent custody order with grandmother, does the other non-parent still need to prove parent has waived her constitutional right to custody and, if so, can the non-parent rely on the fact that parent voluntarily gave custody to the grandmother to establish that the parent acted inconsistent with her protected status?
Unfortunately, the entry of a custody order does not always stop conflict between parents. Anyone working in family law knows that there are cases where, no matter how much effort and skill goes into creating the parenting plan, the parties will continue to come back to court because of the inability of one parent or both to stop fighting.
Recognizing that on-going litigation is bad for families, the General Assembly in 2005 enacted Article 5 of Chapter 50, GS 50-90 through 50-100, to authorize the appointment of a Parenting Coordinator (“PC”) in custody cases determined to be ‘high-conflict’. The hope is that the PC can help parents reduce their need to return to court.
***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.
*Note this post has been amended to reflect the December 2015 recodification of the SCRA
Earlier posts address the SCRA in family law actions and non-judicial foreclosures. It’s my turn to address the SCRA’s application to abuse, neglect, dependency (A/N/D), and termination of parental rights (TPR) actions.
When and Why Does the SCRA Apply?
The SCRA applies to any judicial or administrative proceeding, except for criminal proceedings. 50 U.S.C. § 3912(b). There is no exception for A/N/D or TPR actions, which are “child custody’ proceedings. G.S. 50A-102(4). Child custody proceedings are specifically referenced in the SCRA. 50 U.S.C. § 3931(a) and -3932(a). Continue Reading
Since I discussed service members in my recent post about the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, it’s a good time to review North Carolina’s Uniform Deployed Parents Custody and Visitation Act, GS 50A-350, et. seq, effective since October 1, 2013. The Act is important for military families and for judges struggling to resolve custody issues when a military parent must deploy.