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Does My Ex’s Character Matter in Custody?

By: Y Michael Yin, JD

Steele v. Steele, 36 N.C.App. 601 (1978).

In North Carolina and nationwide, character evidence is generally inadmissible in civil trials. Evidence of character and past conduct is not indicative of future conduct and cannot be used to prove that a party acted or will act in conformity with that character trait or past conduct (save for some exceptions). But in a trial for custody, can the court admit evidence of one parent’s character and past acts to show they are better suited to be the custodial parent? In the case below, the appeal court held that a trial court must make findings as follows:

  1. Facts: Mother and Father had a claim and hearing on child custody, among other matters. The child custody order as drafted by the trial court judge was deficient in findings of fact and conclusions of law. Mother actually conceded that indeed that order was deficient and joined in the appeal seeking remand and further findings.
  2. Issue: Was the trial court’s child custody order deficient as to the findings of facts and conclusions of law when it granted Mother custody?
  3. Holding:
  4. Rationale: The Court acknowledged that, at the time, many child custody orders were insufficient in their findings. The Court found illustrative the statutes controlling child custody. While this case did not outline the necessary findings, they do hold that findings of fact and conclusions of law must be made with deference to the “characteristics of the competing parties.” Those characteristics can potentially concern physical, mental, or financial factors, or any other factor relevant to the best interest of the child.
  5. Lessons and Observations:
  6. This opinion indicates that in a custody trial, the trial court should hear evidence of the character of the parents involved in a custody dispute. Furthermore, it can be argued that the findings and conclusions of law must be supported by the evidence offered at trial.
  7. Relevancy of evidence may be a factor here. The opinion itself does not define in specifics which factors are relevant, but it can be inferred that anything that touches upon the welfare of the child would be a relevant factor. In North Carolina, our rules of evidence state that relevant evidence has the “tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence.” Is this the broad definition of relevance that is the threshold for admissibility of a potential custodial parent’s character?
  8. What it means for your custody case: that perhaps evidence of character and past conduct by your ex could be a factor in your trial.