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Can You Amend Child Custody Based on Long-Standing Conflict with a Co-Parent?

There must be a substantial change of circumstances in order to request a modification to a child custody order in North Carolina. Additionally, that change must affect the child or children’s welfare. Conflict between parents certainly does impact a child, but does it satisfy this requirement if this conflict has existed between the parents for a while?

Conroy v. Conroy

Long-standing parental conflict and its classification as a change in circumstances was one of the numerous issues that the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled on in the case of Conroy v. Conroy.

In this case, the parents had four children, and a 2019 custody order granted joint legal and shared parental custody to Mother and Father. One area of concern that the trial court noted was Mother’s history of difficulty maintaining close and healthy relationships with her family and Father’s family. Further, for much of the custody and divorce cases, Mother disparaged Father to and in front of the children, interfered with his parenting time, and overlooked the children’s best interests in order to disagree with and cause difficulty for Father. She even withheld the children from Father on occasion.

Two years after this custody order in 2019, an order regarding equitable distribution, child support, and attorney fees was entered. Mother was unhappy with the decision in this case, and one month later, she took the following actions:

  • Mother filed a Motion for Emergency Custody, asserting Father had physically abused one of their children
  • Mother filed a Motion for Modification of Custody and moved for permanent primary physical custody
  • Mother reported Father to the Department of Social Services for alleged abuse, which was the third of similar reports made regarding Father’s alleged abuse

Mother’s Motion for Emergency Custody was denied, and the trial court noted that all three DSS reports made by Mother coincided with important court dates, and each allegation was unsubstantiated.

The trial court ruled in May 2022 that a substantial change in circumstances had occurred, impacting the children’s best interests, meaning a change in the 2019 custody order was warranted. The 2022 order granted primary physical custody of the children to Father and gave Mother visitation of the three youngest children every other weekend and every Wednesday evening. Their oldest child was allowed but not required to follow the visitation schedule. Mother appealed.

One of the issues Mother mentioned in her appeal was that the trial court erred when it determined a substantial change in circumstances that affected the children had occurred. She asserted that her difficulty with interpersonal relationships and erratic behavior toward Father had not changed since the entry of the 2019 custody order. Mother stated that she had often made disparaging comments about Father in front of the children and that there had been no substantial change.

Substantial Change in Circumstances

Mother in Conroy asserted that her behavior, while harmful to the children and frowned upon by the court, had not changed since entry of the existing custody order. However, the Court of Appeals stated that even though the communication difficulties and conflict that Mother and Father were experiencing had been going on for years, these issues were presently impacting the children negatively. This constituted a change of circumstances.

Additionally, it is reasonable to predict that parental conflict, specifically difficulty communicating and co-parenting, would affect children more as they get older. Continued failure or difficulty in cooperating and co-parenting does qualify as a substantial change in North Carolina. For an expert opinion on your custody order, contact a Greensboro family law attorney.