Relocation and Child Custody Modification
Bradley v. Bradley, No. COA20-48 (unpublished)
Plaintiff and Defendant married on May 20, 2006 and divorced on July 15, 2015. The parties had one daughter born March 7, 2011. The parties’ daughter was three years old when the original custody order was entered. Defendant filed a motion to modify child custody on July 13, 2017, seeking primary physical custody of their daughter and permission to relocate with their daughter to Alabama to reside with her fiancé. The trial court entered a judgment on July 19, 2019, awarding Defendant primary physical custody, allowing her to relocate to Alabama.
“[B]efore a child custody order may be modified, the evidence must demonstrate a connection between the substantial change in circumstances and the welfare of the child, and flowing from that prerequisite is the requirement that the trial court make findings of fact regarding that connection.” Shipman v. Shipman, 357 N.C. at 478, 586 S.E.2d at 255.
Here, the trial court failed to make specific findings regarding the circumstances existing at the time the original custody order was entered. Additionally, the trial court failed to analyze the effects of Defendant’s relocation to Alabama and compare the advantages and/or disadvantages of the minor child residing in North Carolina or Alabama.
“In cases addressing the relocation of a parent, the trial court must make a comparison between the two applicants considering all factors that indicate which of the two is ‘best-fitted to give the child the home-life, care, and supervision that will be most conducive to its well-being.’” Evans v. Evans, 138 N.C. App. 135, 142, 530 S.E.2d 576, 580 (2000) (quoting Griffith v. Griffith, 240 N.C. 271, 275, 81 S.E.2d 918, 921 (1954)).
The trial court’s order is completely void of why awarding Defendant primary physical custody of the minor child and allow her to relocate to Alabama with the minor child is in the minor child’s best interest. The trial court merely recited Defendant’s motive for moving—that she had remarried, and her husband resided in Alabama. This is insufficient for concluding that a move to Alabama is in the minor child’s best interest.
Plaintiff Joshua Stevens Bradley appealed from the trial court’s order to modify child custody. Bradley argued that the trial court’s findings of fact were insufficient to establish a substantial change in circumstances at the time that affected the welfare of the child, thereby making a modification of custody unwarranted. Bradley also argued that the vagueness of the child custody schedule was an error, and the court should not leave such determination up to the parties’ discretion.
Question: Were the findings of fact by the trial court insufficient to establish a change in circumstances that was sufficient to warrant a modification of child custody, and should the court specifically outline a visitation schedule for Bradley?
Answer: Yes. The case was remanded by the Court of Appeals for the trial court to make additional findings to establish a substantial change in circumstances to warrant a modification of child custody and outline a specific visitation schedule for Bradley.
One parent relocating to another state does not automatically establish a substantial change in circumstances has occurred that warrants a modification of child custody. The parent seeking to relocate must demonstrate to the court that the relocation is in the best interest of the minor child. There must be specific trial court findings that demonstrate the connection between the move and the minor child’s best interest. The trial court failed to make such specific findings here, so the case was remanded for additional findings.