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Dear Carolyn,

I believe I am the Father of a son, but the Mother is married to someone else.  I dated Mother while she and her husband were separated, but now they are back together.   We had sex during the time we were dating and the child was born 9 months later—perfect timing for the child to be mine. Mother and Mother’s husband will not let me see the child, and quite frankly, hide him from me.  I want to see my son.  What can I do?  I do not have any other children.

Bewildered Father

Dear Bewildered:

You have a chance for visitation, and here’s what you will need to do.  North Carolina has a very strong presumption that a child born of and during a marriage is the child of the Husband to the marriage.   You will have to file a lawsuit asking for visitation and asking that the presumption be overcome.

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Dear Carolyn:

I have a family member who is separated. Before the separation, this person purchased a house with the deed only in her name and the deed of trust in both names. How will the courts view this property for equitable distribution? My family member thinks that since the property is only in her name that the other party has no rights under equitable distribution. Can you explain the difference between Deed and Deed of Trust?

Thanks

Carolyn Answers….

This is a very interesting and quite technical question. So, thank you for writing.  I’ll start first with the definitions of deed and deed of trust.

A deed is the ownership or title documents; by analogy, your car title is a title document for a car like a deed is the title document to your home. Thus, the deed states who owns the home, and generally on the deed the owner is referred to as the grantee. This ownership document (deed) is registered at the Register of Deeds.

A deed of trust is the security for the debt or Promissory Note. When you buy a home or get an equity line on your home, you sign a Promissory Note to the lender. At the time of borrowing, you also sign a document called a deed of trust as security (a lien); if you do not pay the Promissory Note, the signatures on the deed of trust allow the lender to foreclose on the home and take the home away from you. If you examine the deed of trust, you will notice that the lender is the beneficiary of the deed of trust, and that there is a trustee. It is the trustee that forecloses if the Note is not paid. When the Note is completely paid, the lender is required to cancel the deed of trust on the public record at the Register of Deeds. We are one of about twenty states that use the “deed of trust” system.  The majority of states use a “mortgage” system.

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Dear Carolyn:

My wife and I have been married 20 years. Our child is graduating from high school this year, and we are miserable.  We own a home with lots of debt and we cannot afford to separate without selling our home first.  We both work, but there simply is not enough money to maintain two households without first selling the house.  Is there any way we can declare ourselves separated and maintain the same household until the house sells?   Why is the North Carolina waiting period for divorce a year?  I hear that one year is a long time as compared to other states.  Can we settle our property now?  We have retirement, cars and furniture, along with the house?

Carolyn Answers….

Generally, North Carolina requires 365 days of separation, with the intent of one spouse to live separate and apart forever, before a spouse may apply to the court for an absolute divorce. Separation in this state means, literally that the spouses, during separation, must have separate residences and essentially, conduct themselves as single for the entire 365 days. Isolated incidences of sexual intercourse, such as a weekend at the beach with an estranged spouse, do not start the 365 day period over.

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Dear Carolyn:

The ex-wife of my new husband is constantly calling my cell phone, following me in my car, and making faces at me at the children’s soccer game.  I get texts from her calling me names.  She even threatened to come to my work. I feel intimidated.  Can I get a 50B for domestic violence and harassment?

Carolyn Answers….

You may be able to get a 50-C, not a 50-B. A 50-B is a domestic violence protection order that can be obtained if you have certain types of relationships with the defendant.  Unfortunately, 50-Bs do not cover relationship problems between a former wife and a new wife.  Typically, 50-B relationships are romantic relationships or parent-child type relationships.

You are eligible to get a 50-C against your husband’s ex-wife.  Essentially, a victim (you) under the 50-C statute:  “Victim.—A person against whom an act of unlawful conduct has been committed by another person not involved in a personal relationship with the person as defined in G.S. 50B-1(b).”  G.S. 50C-1(8).

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Benjamin N. Neese, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group

            When analyzing custody, the issue of who has rights to custody of a minor is commonly focused on the biological parents of the child.  In the eyes of the law, under the right circumstances, biological parents may be disfavored in congruence to “third party” individuals who assert rights to custody.  Some of the most common third-party custody claims are, unsurprisingly, asserted from either the paternal or maternal grandparents.  North Carolina and much of the south, is known for having strong family ties and deep communal roots where grandparents often play a large role in raising not only their children, but their children’s children.  These relationships are often supplemental to the relationships between biological parents and their children, but in some situations grandparents end up being the de facto “mommy” and “daddy” to the minor children.  Where biological parents display continued behavior of either unwillingness or inability to effectively parent their children, grandparents step in and seek legal intervention for the sake of the children.

When it comes to the law, courts have a duty to put the best interest of the children above all others.  Under the Constitution of the United States, the biological parents of a minor have a protected interest in the custody, care, and control of their children.  This is an incredibly high bar to overcome for third-party individuals seeking to assert custodial rights in opposition to those possessed by biological parents.  The law provides for a vague and widely discretionary test for resolving custody disputes of this kind.  While the interest of the children are intended to be promoted above all others, biological parents maintain an almost equally powerful interest that will more often than not prevail over that of third-party individuals unless it can be shown that the parents are unfit or have engaged in some “conduct inconsistent with their protected status.”  Courts do not provide a bright line test in determining what conduct constitutes a violation, but some examples are behavior that leads to neglect of the children, abandonment of the children, and at times, the voluntary surrender of custody of the children.  This behavior must have a negative impact on the child or constitute a substantial risk of such impact.

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By: Leesa M. Poag, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group

In a typical child custody case, the mother and father of a child are seeking the intervention of the court to settle their dispute over who should be granted custody of their child.  Though this is the situation most often facing family law attorneys throughout the Triad, the cases become more complex when one of the parties seeking custody of a child is not a biological parent of that child.

This is the situation that the North Carolina Supreme Court had to address in 2003 in the case of Owenby v. Young.  In 1989, Fred and Priscilla Young were married, and two children were born thereafter.  Four years after marrying, Fred and Priscilla divorced.  Upon their separation, the former spouses executed a separation agreement that granted Ms. Young primary custody of the minor children, and secondary custody to Mr. Young.

For seven years, the parties acted and shared custody of the children under this agreement.  However, in April of 2000, tragedy struck when Ms. Young was killed in a plane crash.  At this time, the minor children were 10 and 11 years old.  Following Ms. Young’s death, Mr. Young moved the children in with him and began to exercise sole custody of the children.

But this arrangement would not last long.  After the children had lived with their father for a few weeks, Ms. Young’s mother, Priscilla Owenby, filed a complaint with the court seeking custody of the children on both a permanent and ex parte basis.  An order was entered by the court that same day granting temporary custody of the children to Ms. Owenby.  Mr. Young then filed an answer to Ms. Owenby’s complaint and a counterclaim for custody of the children.  The case came on for hearing in the trial court in December of 2000.

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By: Jennifer A. Crissman, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group

            As contentious custody cases in the Piedmont progress, it is likely that a parent may be called “unfit.” In a legal context, this word has a specific meaning, and drastic consequences should the court find a parent unfit. In this second installment on standing to apply for custody, we will examine how a parent’s rights are affected when there is an allegation of “unfitness.”

The case of Raynor v. Odom is instructive when trying to determine whether a parent is “unfit.” Raynor v. Odom, 478 S.E.2d 655 (N.C. App. 1996). Raynor was decided several years after Petersen and discusses what analysis the Court should undertake when determining unfitness. The Raynor court held that although there is no specific list of findings that determines a parent is unfit, the court must look at the totality of the circumstances in determining whether a parent can care for the needs of their child.

The minor child in the Raynor case was removed from Plaintiff Mother’s care and temporarily placed with Intervenor Foster. When Foster gained temporary custody, she took the minor child to have a pre-school assessment. At the assessment, it was discovered that the child had an articulation disorder, and was not as advanced or matured as many of the child’s contemporaries.  This fact was supported by the preschool screening report, an articulation evaluation, and a language therapy initial treatment plan. The trial court found that the child’s lack of development was a result of Plaintiff Mother not providing motivation, opportunity, or encouragement for the child’s normal and healthy development.

The trial court went on to catalog facts that demonstrated Plaintiff Mother’s unfitness to care for her child, including:

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By: Jennifer A. Crissman, Attorney, Woodruff Family Law Group

            If you have been involved with a highly contentious custody case in the Triad, you know that family members will start coming out of the woodwork to ask for custody of the minor children. This phenomenon is even more prevalent when the parents are not adequately caring for their children. This multi-part series will examine who can have standing to apply for custody of the minor children under North Carolina law, and the analysis the Court must follow. In part one of our series, we will examine the Constitutional Rights of the biological parents, which is the bedrock for all subsequent analysis by the Court.

The seminal North Carolina case on parents’ constitutional rights is Petersen v. Rogers, 445 S.E.2d 901 (N.C. 1994). At the outset, the Petersen court recognizes that the right to conceive and raise one’s children is an essential basic civil right which is far more precious than property rights. The Court then discusses in depth both the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions regarding parental rights to custody, as well as North Carolina case law.

With regard to U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the Petersen Court notes that the integrity of the family unit has been recognized as a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court has held “It is cardinal with us that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents…”. Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944). This right has been protected both by the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as under the Ninth Amendment by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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By Carolyn J. Woodruff, North Carolina Family Law Specialist

Winston Salem, North Carolina: Malecek v. Williams (2017)

Derek Williams is a Forsyth County doctor who had an affair apparently, or at least allegedly, with his nurse. Playing doctor-nurse games got them in trouble with the nurse’s husband, Marc Malecek. The nurse’s then-husband Marc sued Derek for alienation of affection and criminal conversation.

What is alienation of affection? This heart balm tort is something like an automobile accident where a marriage is rear-ended. This alienation of affection requires a spouse to prove that he or she had a genuine marital relationship and that marriage relationship was interfered with by a third party paramour, causing damages. What is criminal conversation? That is simpler. That is sex with someone’s spouse creating damages. Frequently the damages might be one dollar, which is required to reward if sex is found with someone else’s spouse. Of course, in North Carolina damages for alienation of affection and criminal conversation has been as much as $30 million.

Interestingly enough, Derek Williams was sued by Marc Malecek in May of 2016. The Honorable Todd Burke dismissed the lawsuit indicating that alienation of affection and criminal conversation were unconstitutional. There had been several other cases wherein judges had found or not found alienation of affection and criminal conversation to be unconstitutional.

For now, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has spoken on the constitutionality of alienation of affection and criminal conversation. These heart balm torts are constitutional, according to Court of Appeals Judge Richard Deitz. Continue reading →

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Dear Carolyn,

I have been reading the horrid stories about children being left in hot cars.  I also have been troubled by my next door neighbor leaving her seven-year-old son alone this summer while she goes to work.  I have seen this mother lock the door when she leaves in the morning with the child apparently inside.  I do think the seven-year-old has a cell phone.  I don’t like this situation for the seven-year-old who just finished first grade. Is there anything I can do?

Danger Lurking Next Door

Dear Danger,

Ohhhhhh! It is a crime for someone to leave a child under eight years of age unattended.  Further, a child under age eight cannot be left locked up, as this is also a crime.  Children under eight years of age must be left with a supervisor of suitable age and discretion.   The parent can and will be prosecuted.  The placement in the law of this statute is interesting as it is presented as a “fire protection” for little children.  However, I do believe that leaving an unattended child under eight in a car would be a crime under this statute as well. (North Carolina General Statutes 14-318.)

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