In North Carolina, custody can be modified when there is a substantial change of circumstances, but importantly, this change need not be adverse. A positive change can also be the basis for a modification of North Carolina child custody. In a recent appellate decision, the court considered modification of custody in a child’s best interest at a grandparent’s request. The case arose from the modification of a 2012 custody order. The plaintiffs were the paternal grandparents of two children, and the plaintiff’s son was the children’s father. The children’s mother had gotten married since an earlier order of the court and her interests were opposed to the father and grandparents’ interests.
An earlier custody order had given the father sole legal and physical custody of the children. The mother had visitation rights. The father and children lived with the grandparents at that time. The father had limited intelligence and education and needed to rely on his parents. However, the mother admitted to the father that she used drugs and alcohol excessively at one point, and that she was hanging out with a man who was later imprisoned for meth sales. She wasn’t able to keep a job and had to move multiple times due to an inability to pay rent and utilities.
When the kids were five and two, their grandmother found the house covered in trash and alcohol and one of the kids had cut herself due to glass being on the floor. She removed the child from the mother’s home.
In 2016, the mother asked to modify custody on the grounds that there had been a substantial change of circumstances since the earlier order. She’d gotten sober for several years, kept a job and remarried, and she believed the father was difficult with regard to visits.
The lower court held a hearing for the mother’s motion. It modified custody and decided there had been a substantial change of circumstances that affected the kids’ welfare and it gave both parents joint legal custody. The mother had primary physical custody. The grandparents and father appealed this decision.
The father argued that the lower court had made a mistake since little had changed, and the changes that had occurred didn’t affect the children’s welfare. He also argued that it was an abuse of discretion for the lower court to disrupt the routine and stability of the children.
The appellate court explained that a lower court can order a modification of an existing child custody order between two parents when the person moving for modification shows a substantial change of circumstances that impacts the child’s welfare, warranting a custody change. The parent who wants to modify doesn’t need to show that the change had an adverse impact on the child, but even a beneficial change may warrant a custody modification.
The court’s primary objective is to determine whether a custody change will promote a child’s best interests. Accordingly, if a lower court determines that a change in circumstances impacts the child’s welfare, it can only modify the order if it also finds that the change would be in the child’s best interest.
The father focused on the circumstances giving way to the 2012 order, such as the mother’s unstable living circumstances. He argued that the mother’s years-long sobriety shouldn’t count as a change of circumstances. The appellate court disagreed, noting that at the time of the 2012 order, the mother had been living an unstable life, though she wasn’t actively using alcohol or drugs. The father also claimed the mother’s remarriage wasn’t a substantial change of circumstances because the relationship between the kids and their stepfather hadn’t changed. However, the appellate court disagreed, pointing to the lower court’s finding that the stepfather had developed a strong relationship with the mother’s kids and had a positive involvement with them. The father didn’t believe his unwillingness to communicate with the mother about the kids’ medical and school needs was negatively impacting the kids, but the court disagreed.
The appellate court found no abuse of discretion by the lower court in determining that because of the mother’s long-term sobriety, ability to work and give the kids a proper home, the kids’ close relationship to their stepfather, the father’s efforts to keep the mother from knowing about the kids’ lives and his need to rely on the grandparents to care for the kids, it was in the children’s best interest to primarily live with their mother.
North Carolina child custody disputes can be painful, and grandparents may be become involved where neither parent is able to provide adequate care. However, sometimes parents are able to turn their lives around, and as the case above shows, this can be the basis for a modification of a child custody order. If you are concerned about child custody issues, you should consult skillful family law attorneys. Contact the Woodruff Family Law Group at 336.272.9122 or via our online form.
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