In a recent NC Court of Appeals opinion, Laura Sue Tuel v. Anthony Ryan Tuel, out of Johnston County, North Carolina, the court made a ruling on a relocation case. This opinion provides some additional insight as to what the court should consider and what findings are required in child custody relocation cases.
At the trial court level, the case was heard in Johnston County, North Carolina, by the Honorable Addie H. Rawls. The Defendant in this case appealed the trial court’s Order for Permanent Child Custody and Temporary Child Support which granted the Plaintiff primary physical custody and permitted her to move with their two children to Indiana.
On May 16, 2017, the Plaintiff mother filed a complaint for child custody and left the marital residence with the children the following day to go to her parent’s home in Rushville, Indiana. The mother and the minor children stayed with her parents in Indiana for three months. On August 21, 2017, the parties entered into a temporary child custody consent order which provided that mom and the minor children returned to North Carolina, pending a permanent custody order being entered.
On July 5, 2018, the court held a hearing on permanent custody. The court heard evidence and testimony by both parties which showed that the parties had marital issues which were only exacerbated by the birth of their children. The court also heard evidence that the mom of the minor children had a strained history with her parents which was documented in journal entries, online posts, and records from her therapy sessions. In fact, mom ceased all contact with her parents shortly after the birth of the parties’ first child in 2014. In May of 2017, mom reinitiated contact with her family and after a visit from her mother that month, filed the complaint and relocated.
After hearing the evidence at trial, the trial court entered an Order for Permanent Custody and Temporary Child Support on March 18, 2019. The order granted primary physical custody to mom, permitted her to relocate with the children to Rushville, Indiana, and granted dad secondary physical custody.
In his appeal the dad argued that the trial abused its discretion in its order by concluding as a matter of law that granting mom primary custody would be in their best interests, despite: (a) failing to make adequate findings of fact addressing the factors in Ramirez-Barker v. Barker, relevant to determining custody upon relocation of a parent to a foreign jurisdiction; and (b) otherwise making findings supporting this conclusion that were not supported by competent evidence.
The Court of Appeals looked to how the trial court applied the Ramirez-Barker v. Barker factors which are as follows:
- The advantages of the relocation in terms of its capacity to improve the life of the child;
- The motives of the custodial parent in seeking the move;
- The likelihood that the custodial parent will comply with visitation orders when he or she is no longer subject to the jurisdiction of the courts of North Carolina;
- The integrity of the noncustodial parent in resisting the relocation;
- The likelihood that a realistic visitation schedule can be arranged which will preserve and foster the parental relationship with the noncustodial parent.
The court found that both mom and dad were fit and proper to share custody and that the children would thrive under each of their care. However, the court didn’t explain why primary custody with mom would be in the children’s best interests other than in reference to the mother’s family support network in Indiana. Amongst the findings of fact, the trial court relates the effect of relocation to the best interest of the children only a few times outside the context of mom’s family support network.
The court also went on to note that several of the findings of fact were inconsistent. For example, the trial court found that the mother’s mental health issues are partially caused by being the primary caregiver, yet did not explain how these issues would not be exacerbated by giving her primary custody and putting them into contact with her parents whom she herself had a strained relationship.
Ultimately the court found that the trial court’s findings did not support its conclusion of law giving mom primary physical custody and permitting relocation would be in the children’s best interest. Therefore, the trial court abused its discretion and the custody order was vacated and remanded for entry of a new order.
I think this ruling provides a lot of guidance when it comes to trying a relocation custody case. The court made it clear that although findings regarding all of the factors are not necessary, they still should be addressed as best practice. If you are someone that is trying to relocate with your children, it is important to note each of these factors and provide evidence supporting your position with regards to each of the factors. For example, find out where your children would be going to school if the court allowed you to relocate. Do some research about the school. Is it a highly ranked school? Do they have opportunities that your children’s current school does not? How does it compare overall to their current school? These are all things that the court should hear in considering the factors.
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