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).
In 2016, the court of appeals held that a voluntary support agreement that modified an existing child support order was void because neither party filed a motion to modify as required by GS 50-13.7. Catawba County ex. Rel. Rackley, 784 SE2d 620 (N.C. App. 2016). On September 29, 2017, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals and held that the order was not void.
This is important. Among other things, this decision means that if a court accepts a consent order for modification and the requirements of GS 50-13.7 have not been met, the consent order nevertheless is valid and enforceable. However, GS 50-13.7 still requires that a motion be filed and that the court conclude there has been a substantial change in circumstances before modifying a child support or a child custody order can be modified. The failure to comply with the statute is legal error that will support reversal by the court of appeals if there is a direct appeal.
Unlike other civil judgments, custody and support orders can be modified when there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the order was entered. This rule is codified in North Carolina at GS 50-13.7 and every state in the country has a similar statute.
While this authority is broad and straight forward, there are other statutory provisions that place significant limits on a court’s subject matter jurisdiction to modify a custody or support order – whether the order originally was entered in NC or in some other state or country. These statutory provisions were enacted for the purpose of discouraging parents from running from state to state in the hope of obtaining a more favorable court order.
***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.
I hear this question frequently. Despite much effort, I have yet to find a case or a statute indicating that a custody order from another state must be registered before it can be enforced or modified. Of course, an action must be initiated to invoke the jurisdiction of our courts; something that can be done with a complaint, service of process and the normal rules of civil procedure. It is clear from UIFSA, Chapter 52C, that support orders from other states must be registered before a North Carolina court can enforce or modify the support order and UIFSA provides a clear statutory procedure for registration. There is no similar statutory requirement for child custody orders.