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Third-Party Rights Involving Child Custody in North Carolina: Price v. Howard

Third-party rights to custody and visitation can be contentious and complicated. Under North Carolina law, there is a preference for natural and adoptive parents. A biological or adoptive parent has a constitutional right to take care of the child. This includes custody and control of the child. Third parties cannot interfere with this right unless they show that a parent is unfit to care for the child, has been negligent, or has otherwise acted in a manner inconsistent with his or her protected status as a parent.

This rule was created through the case of Price v. Howard. In that case, the plaintiff (the father) and the defendant (the mother) were living together when the child was born. Some time later, the couple separated, and the child remained with the plaintiff. When the child was six years old, the defendant sought custody of the child, but the plaintiff refused. The plaintiff then filed a custody action against the defendant. In her answer, the defendant claimed that the plaintiff was not actually the biological father of the child. DNA tests confirmed that the plaintiff was not the father, and the mother was awarded custody of the child.

The trial court explained that there was no evidence to suggest that the mother had acted in an unfit or negligent manner. The lower court’s ruling was then subsequently affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

The Supreme Court, however, disagreed with the lower courts, stating that the presumption favoring parents was not absolute. A parent’s protected interests go hand in hand with the parental responsibilities that the parent has acted in the best interest of the child.

Thus, the parent may lose the paramount status if he or she behaves in a manner not consistent with this presumption, or if he or she fails to take on the obligations that come with raising a child.

Thus, the court concluded that the ‘best interest of the child’ test should apply in custody disputes that involve biological parents and non-parents when the biological parent has neglected the child or acted inconsistently with the parent’s protected interests.

The court, importantly, did not strictly define which types of behavior would be considered “inconsistent” with a parent’s constitutionally protected status. However, we know that the court said each case must be viewed on a case-by-case basis and that the biological parent’s conduct does not have to rise to the level that would warrant a complete termination of parental rights.

Child custody determinations will affect the rest of your child’s life, so it is imperative to consider the long-term implications of any arrangement for the child. At the Woodruff Family Law Group, our North Carolina child custody attorneys understand the sensitivity and urgency that child custody cases require. We will work to advocate for your rights. We understand that the emotional stakes are extremely high when children are involved, so you can expect the utmost compassion from our Firm. If you need the assistance of reputable attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us online or call us at 336-272-9122.

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