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When Should North Carolina Courts Split Decision Making Authority for a Child?

Sometimes parents disagree as to the best course of treatment for a child’s mental health or health condition, or with regard to education. These issues came up in a recent North Carolina child custody appellate decision, in which a father appealed the court’s order giving a mother primary physical custody of their child, while only giving him secondary physical custody. The court had given the parents joint legal custody but gave the mother final decision making powers with regard to education and healthcare while the father retained final decision making powers with regard to sports.

The father argued the lower court made a mistake in several ways. The appellate court reasoned that the lower court’s findings were enough to support its decision about what physical custody award would address the child’s best interests, but it did hold that the lower court’s findings weren’t enough to support an award of joint legal custody with a split in decision making powers.

The case arose when the parents had one child. They lasted as a family unit for a few years when the parents decided to separate. The father asked for custody of the child. The mother counterclaimed. The father appealed from the permanent custody order.

The lower court had found both parties were fit to have custody but it was in the child’s best interest for one parent to have primary physical custody. The appellate court explained that a lower court has discretion to make this decision with competent evidence and that it has to compare the two parents, considering all relevant factors, to determine which is best suited to providing a home-life, care and supervision that will be conducive to the child’s well-being. Among a series of holdings, the lower court found that the child had been prescribed ADHD medication by his doctor. The father disagreed with the appropriateness of administering that medication and didn’t make sure the son got his medication as prescribed.

The court found this contrary to the child’s best interests to have the medication administered intermittently. The court also found that the father had texted the mother that he didn’t want to see his son again and posted comments on social media describing himself as a father from a distance. However, the father also had valid concerns that the mother had been involved with a convicted felony and known drug addict. The mother was bipolar and took medication for that. The lower court also found that the mother and father had certain tensions in connection with determining the child’s best interests, but the child needed a routine and consistency in a parental approach to healthcare and school needs, especially with regard to his ADHD medication.

The appellate court found that these findings were not challenged and were sufficient for meaningful appellate review and a determination of what physical custody award would serve the child’s best interests. The findings also showed that the lower court’s best interests conclusion wasn’t unsupported or arbitrary. The physical custody award to the mother as primary custodian and father as secondary custodian was affirmed.

However, the appellate court agreed with the father that the lower court’s findings weren’t enough to support its decision to grant the mother final decision-making power over the child’s education and healthcare. The appellate court sent the case back down for the lower court to set out specific findings as to why deviation from pure joint legal custody was necessary and in the child’s best interests if it wanted to deviate. It noted that the findings might support the lower court’s discretion in deviating from joint legal custody if it granted the mother final decision making power if the parents disputed matters about ADHD treatment specifically, but were not enough to support a deviation with regard to all health care issues. Similarly, it found there was enough to support a deviation with regard to disputes related to the son’s enrollment in after-school, but not enough to take away from the father final decision making authority as to all education-related matters.

If you are concerned about shared child custody with your spouse after you get divorced, you should contact the Woodruff Family Law Group at 336.272.9122 or via our online form.

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