Ward v. Halprin, ___ N.C. App. ____.
Child custody has the potential to be heavily contested. In some cases, one parent wants to be able to have sole decision-making authority. In North Carolina, the ability to make these decisions is termed “legal custody.” Courts often grant parents joint legal custody. This means that either parent can make major life decisions regarding their children (usually education, religion, and non-emergency healthcare), often requiring the parents to make a good faith attempt at resolving issues in the decision-making process and providing legal recourse should they not resolve. However, the court can grant sole legal custody in some circumstances. Below is a case that did just that.
- Facts: Mother and Father had tumultuous temporary custody arrangements. Both parties had a breakdown in communication and each began taking unilateral actions with regard to life changing decisions for their children. They eventually entered into an amended permanent child custody order in 2019. In that Order, the Court awarded primary physical custody of the minor children to Mother and awarded both Mother and Father joint legal custody. However, in the event that Mother and Father could not agree on a major decision, the custodial parent retained the final say. This was in part because of their previous failure to co-parent and the effect of that failure on the wellbeing of the minor children. Father appealed.
- Issue: Did the trial court err in granting Mother the final decision-making authority?
- Rationale: The Court explained that joint legal custody has no set definition in our statutes. The reason is that it allows flexibility when crafting an arrangement that best suits the needs of the children. So long as a trial court has made findings that support the terms of joint legal custody that they have prescribed, then an appellate court should not disturb. In this case, Mother was more directly involved with the day-to-day, the parents have not been able to co-parent, both parents had made unilateral decisions, the children are excelling in school at the moment, and that the failure to co-parent has had a negative impact on the children. Father was also in a new marriage, and was planning on relocating out of state (though he insisted he would keep a NC residence for visitation). The past inabilities to agree on decisions and the effect of that inability on the children were the major reasons for the court to grant the veto power to Mother and, absent an abuse of discretion, it was affirmed.
- Lessons and Observations:
- There was a dissent to this opinion. The dissent wrote that while a court can grant sole decision making authority to one parent, it must be supported by the facts as they pertain to decision making. Many of the findings in this case were reasons for awarding Mother sole physical custody. And after those facts were removed, there only existed the fact that the parents did not communicate well, and that lack of communication was affecting the children. The dissent does not consider these facts sufficient to award Mother final decision making authority.
- What this means is that the best case for awarding one parent sole decision making authority, or final decision making authority, should be related to the efforts of both parties in that decision making role. For instance, best evidence would show that Father made rash and reckless decisions, that Father was the one to initiate failures in communication, and that those failures on the part of Father resulted in negative effects in the children. Those findings would likely support this Court’s decision.