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Domestic Relations – Parent & Child – Custody Modification – Changed Circumstances – Mother’s Hostility & Move – Effect on Children

Domestic Relations – Parent & Child – Custody Modification – Changed Circumstances – Mother’s Hostility & Move – Effect on Children

Stephens v. Stephens (Lawyers Weekly No. 11-07-0724, 20 pp.) (Robert N. Hunter Jr., J.) Appealed from Harnett County District Court. (Robert W. Bryant Jr., J.) N.C. App. Click here for the full-text opinion.

Holding: The defendant-mother’s angry outbursts and hostility towards the plaintiff-father and his current wife, in addition to the mother’s move from Harnett County to Durham were substantial changes in circumstances. The trial court was not required to wait until the changes harmed the children to find that the changes affected the children.

We affirm the custody modification.

Since the entry of the parties’ original custody order, the record is replete with evidence that the mother repeatedly sought to deliberately belittle the father in the mind of his children and commonly interfered with his visitation. In fact, substantial evidence supports the trial court’s finding that “the conduct engaged by the Defendant towards the Plaintiff and his present wife threatens to undermine and alienate the Plaintiff as well as the Plaintiff’s wife from the minor children without justification or provocation.”

In one incident, after the father called the police because of the mother’s conduct on his property, the mother left before the police arrived. However, she was still talking to the father on the phone and spoke with the investigating officer. She accused the father’s current wife of sexually abusing the children, but she refused to come to the police station to make a formal report. She said she might make the report to the sheriff’s office, but she never did. At trial, the mother acknowledged the facts of the incident but denied making an accusation of sexual abuse, despite the officer’s testimony to the contrary.

Twice when the father brought the children back to the mother’s home, his current wife remained in the car. Nevertheless, in the presence of the children, the mother confronted the wife and yelled obscenities at her.

The trial court also made findings of other ways in which the mother tried to undermine the children’s relationship with their father.

In addition, the mother’s move from Harnett County to Durham is a substantial change in circumstances that affects the children’s welfare. The children had lived near their school but now have a 50-mile/one hour drive to school. They have accumulated many tardies and absences, though they continue to earn high grades.

The mother notes the trial court made no findings of emotional or behavior problems with the children. A trial court need not wait until the substantial change in circumstances harms children. The trial court did not err in determining that there was a substantial change in circumstances that affects the children.

The custody modification was also in the children’s best interest.

There was evidence that the mother has faced periods of depression where she did not take care of the children. She often failed to take one child to school if the other child was sick, resulting in a significant number of absences for both children.

The mother also had many unexcused absences from her job, leading to her resignation. She is currently unemployed and not looking for work.

Furthermore, the mother’s numerous instances of vulgar communication and hostile interactions with the father in front of the children directly reflect on the mother’s emotional instability and volatility.

On the other hand, the father has moved into a new home where the children have friends in the local neighborhood. Both the father and his wife have family in the area who help take care of the children. The children have a strong, loving relationship with their father, his wife, and their half-brother.

The father has maintained the same job throughout these proceedings and has earned his master’s degree. Neither he nor his wife has any plans to relocate.

There was substantial evidence to support the trial court’s conclusion that a custody modification was in the children’s best interest.


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