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Change of Child Custody Decision Rendered by North Carolina Court of Appeals

children 3.jpgIn the case of Hibshman v. Hibshman the North Carolina Court of Appeals entered a ruling relating to a modification of child custody case. In this case, the parties had a prior child custody order (by consent) which awarded primary child custody to mother. Said consent order on child custody provided that said award of primary child custody was contingent upon Mother remaining with the minor children in a particular school district. The consent order on child custody provided that if motion moved away from the particular school district then the Court would receive additional evidence and would be free to modify the prior child custody decree without making a finding of a substantial change in circumstances affecting the welfare of the minor children. Interestingly, not only did the prior consent order on child custody provide for this stipulation, but the parties and child custody lawyers reconfirmed this stipulation at trial.

Ultimately, the mother moved and the Court held an evidentiary hearing in order to determine what would be in the best interests of the minor children. Again, the parties reconfirmed their stipulation that the Court did not need to take evidence on, or find facts supporting, a substantial change in circumstances to support any modification of child custody. The Court took the evidence and changed primary custody from mother to father. Not surprisingly, mother appealed and, among other things, argued that the parties could not waive the necessity of the Court finding that there had been a substantial change in circumstances affecting the welfare of the minor children.

The Court held that there is no provision in North Carolina child custody law which would permit the parties to waive the necessity of the Court finding that there had been a substantial change in circumstances affecting the welfare of the minor children. The Court noted that North Carolina General Statutes § 50-13.7 (Modification of order for child support or custody) governs modification of child custody and explicitly requires the finding of a change of circumstances before child custody may be changed. The Court noted that this requirement of a substantial change in circumstances affecting the welfare of the minor children is intended to bring about a level of stability in child custody litigation cases.

The Court considered father’s contention that mother had waived her right to object on these grounds and should be equitably estopped from being able to appeal on this issue. The Court noted that the requirement of a showing of a substantial change in circumstances affecting the welfare of the minor children is a statutorily mandated limit on the Court’s authority to modify child custody. According to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, it is not a personal right which may be waived by either of the parties. The Court also noted that the requirement of a showing and a finding of a substantial change in circumstances affecting the welfare of the minor children is a requirement which is intended to protect the minor children. It is not a requirement which is intended to protect either of the parents.


An interesting point which appears to be left unanswered by the North Carolina Court of Appeals in this case is whether the parties could have stipulated that if mother moved from the appointed school district that said move would automatically constitute a substantial change in circumstances affecting the welfare of the minor children thus empowering the Court to, if it deems appropriate, modify child custody under North Carolina General Statutes § 50-13.7.

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