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When Are Non-Parents Granted Custody in North Carolina?

A parent-child bond is more than just an emotional connection; it’s also a strong legal force. In North Carolina, parents have a constitutionally protected interest when it comes to their relationship with their children. Non-parents can be granted custody, but there are strict guidelines for when that can occur.

Awarding Custody to Non-Parents in North Carolina

Because parents have a protected interest, non-parents must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the parents have behaved in a way that is inconsistent with their protected interest. Non-parents can include anyone who is not the biological mother or father, and often they are:

  • Grandparents
  • Aunts or uncles
  • Foster parents

If a non-parent seeking custody can prove that a parent is unfit or neglectful, then courts will apply the best interests of the child standards to the custody case.

Speagle v. Seitz

The case of Speagle v. Seitz was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of North Carolina, which ultimately decided that Mother’s conduct was congruent with neglect and separation from her daughter. Because of this, the plaintiffs, who were the child’s paternal grandparents, were granted custody.

The trial court in Speagle came to the conclusion that Mother’s lifestyle choices and romantic involvement led her to neglect her child, thus proving her to be unfit for custody. The child’s best interests are considered in cases involving parents and non-parents only when the parent displays conduct inconsistent with their protected status as a parent. In Speagle, Mother’s behavior was determined to be inconsistent with her parental interest by the trial court, and the paternal grandparents were awarded custody based on the child’s best interests.

Mother appealed this decision, claiming there was not enough evidence to support the trial court’s ruling that she should lose her right to custody. The Court of Appeals agreed with Mother, concluding that she should not have lost custody because there was no evidence that she engaged in conduct inconsistent with her protected status as a parent.

After this decision from the appeals court, the paternal grandparents appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court. One of the factors that was discussed in the Supreme Court appeals case was Mother’s involvement in the murder of the biological father. While Mother was acquitted of the charges, the Supreme Court felt that past circumstances and conduct that might affect a child are relevant in custody proceedings. Further, the Court stated that finding a parent has behaved inconsistently with their protected status is not an automatic determination of custody. Such a finding only leads a court to analyze the case based on the best interests of the child.

The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court’s decision and granted custody to the paternal grandparents with liberal visitation to Mother. An experienced family law attorney can provide more information specific to your situation.