Child Custody With Two Military Parents
The trial court awarded Plaintiff-Father Issac Munoz primary physical custody of the parties’ daughter. Defendant-Mother Cassandra Munoz appealed. The parties married in 2012 and the minor child was born in 2015. Mother was, and still is, a member of the United States Army. In 2016, the Mother was stationed at Fort Bragg near Fayetteville, North Carolina. When the minor child was born, both Mother and Father worked, but they relied on extended family to care for the minor child as opposed to placing the minor child in daycare. While living in Fayetteville in 2018, the parties separated. At the time, Mother was anticipating deployment to Iraq.
In April 2018, Father filed a complaint in Cumberland County, which included a claim for child custody. Mother filed her answer and included a counterclaim for child custody. On May 10, 2018, the parties executed a Memorandum of Judgment regarding temporary child custody. The Memorandum of Judgment provided that Mother and Father would have joint legal custody, with primary physical custody going to Father and secondary physical custody to Mother. In addition, the parties agreed to permit Father to relocate to California with the minor child. Later, Mother learned that she would no longer be deployed and filed a motion to set aside the Memorandum of Judgment. At that time, Father had already relocated with the minor child to Victorville, California. When Mother’s motion to set aside came on for hearing, the trial court established a holiday visitation schedule and awarded primary physical custody to Father and secondary physical custody to Mother. When the matter came on for a permanent custody hearing, the trial court once again awarded Father the primary physical custody and secondary physical custody went to Mother. Mother appealed from this permanent custody order.
Mother’s appeal argued that the court (1) failed to give proper consideration to the Ramirez-Barker relocation factors, and (2) improperly considered Mother’s military-service obligations as a basis for granting primary physical custody to Father.
Held: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s permanent custody order.
Rationale: The Ramirez-Barker relocation factors are not a mandatory checklist. In contrast, they provide the trial court with guidance in deciding the best interest of the child. The Court of Appeals said that the trial court appeared to have considered the appropriate relevant factors pertinent to the case. One such factor being each party’s respective support systems. The parties had never parented without the assistance of family members. In California, Father had a strong support system and family living with him to help care for the minor child. In North Carolina, Mother had no family living with her and no family members close by to help care for the minor child. Additionally, under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50-13.2(f), in determining the best interests of the child, a trial court is not allowed to consider a parent’s possible future deployment as the only basis. However, this does not prevent the trial court from considering a parent’s possible future deployment as one factor in determining the best interests of the child. Therefore, the Court of Appeals found that, based upon the trial court’s findings in the permanent order, it was unclear whether potential future deployment was in fact a factor that contributed to the trial court’s decision in this case.