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The Psychological Parent Doctrine in North Carolina

Typically, custody is only granted in North Carolina between two biological parents or if it is determined that a parent is unable to care for the child. The constitutional rights of a biological parent are difficult to overcome, and courts give greater weight to that relationship over others. However, this standard leaves out a large number of households, including same-sex spouses, long-term dating partners, and adoptive parents.

In these situations, courts may apply the psychological parent doctrine. A psychological parent is someone who establishes a close relationship with a child through day-to-day interaction and companionship and fulfills the child’s physical, emotional, and psychological needs.

Wolfgram v. Davis-Perkins

The Alaska Supreme Court heard a case involving a biological mother and her boyfriend in which the boyfriend, Wolfgram, had established a close relationship with the mother’s child. Mother, Davis-Perkins, held Wolfgram out to be the child’s father: he signed the child’s birth certificate, Mother signed an affidavit of paternity, the child had Wolfgram’s last name, and he was the only father the child had ever known.

When Wolfgram and Davis-Perkins broke up, they agreed on an informal arrangement for shared custody, which alternated every two weeks. They followed this arrangement for nearly one year until Davis-Perkins moved with the child from Alaska to Minnesota without notifying Wolfgram. He sought joint legal and shared physical custody, and the trial court ordered the child to be returned to Alaska.

Subsequent genetic testing proved that Wolfgram was not the child’s father. The court in Alaska determined that Wolfgram was seeking custody as a non-parent, which required him to prove that the mother was unfit or the child would suffer clear detriment if placed with the mother.

The ultimate ruling was that Wolfgram had no legal rights to the child. He appealed.

The Supreme Court of Alaska agreed with Wolfgram that the lower court applied the third-party custody guidelines incorrectly. The psychological parent’s relationship with a child must be considered when analyzing the best interests or welfare of the child.

Applying the Psychological Parent Metrics

North Carolina courts may also follow similar reasoning in custody cases involving parents and non-parents who have acted as parents. For example, in the case of Mason v. Dwinnell, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that the relationship between a child and a third party is relevant in custody considerations. Establishing a third party in a permanent parent-like relationship with a child is sometimes sufficient to allow that person to seek custody and visitation without having to prove neglect or abuse on the part of the biological parent.