Articles Posted in North Carolina Supreme Court

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The trial court did not err by terminating Father’s parental rights to his minor child on the basis of neglect in accordance with N.C. Gen. Stat. 7B-1111(a)(1). The court of appeals reversed the trial court’s order termination of Father’s parental rights, concluding that the trial court erred in finding that grounds existed pursuant to section 7B-1111(a)(1) to terminate Father’s parental rights. On appeal, the New Hanover County Department of Social Services (DSS) argued, among other things, that the court of appeals incorrectly opined that, because Father was incarcerated at the time of the child’s removal, he therefore could not have neglected the child. The Supreme Court agreed and reversed the court of appeals’ judgment, holding that DSS met its burden of proving sufficient facts to enable the trial court to establish by clear and convincing evidence that grounds existed to justify termination. View "In re M.A.W." on Justia Law

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A district court has jurisdiction to modify a child support order without a party filing a motion to modify asserting that there is a change in circumstances. Catawba County, by and through its Child Support Agency, ex rel. Shawna Rackley (Plaintiff) failed to file a motion to modify a child support order. The district court concluded that a motion to modify a child support obligation must precede a modification order. The Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that the district court did not have jurisdiction because Plaintiff failed to comply with the procedural mandates of N.C. Gen. Stat. 50-13.7(a). The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Plaintiff’s failure to file a motion to modify Defendant’s child support obligation did not divest the district court of jurisdiction to modify the child support order under section 50-13.7(a). View "Catawba County ex rel. Rackley v. Loggins" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff filed an action seeking equitable distribution of the parties’ marital assets and child support. Plaintiff and Defendant agreed to arbitrate the action under North Carolina’s Family Law Arbitration Act. Plaintiff and Defendant entered into an equitable distribution arbitration award by consent. The trial court confirmed the award. Plaintiff subsequently filed a motion to vacate arbitration award and set aside order and motion to engage in discovery on the basis of Plaintiff’s alleged fraud. The trial court denied Plaintiff’s motion for leave to engage in discovery. The court of appeals dismissed Plaintiff’s appeal, concluding that Plaintiff had no right to immediately appeal the trial court’s order denying discovery and that the trial court had no discretion to order post-confirmation discovery in this case. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) Plaintiff had a right to appeal the trial court’s denial of his motion to engage in discovery; and (2) the trial court had the discretion to order discovery in this case. View "Stokes v. Crumpton" on Justia Law

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After Mother discontinued her romantic relationship with Father, she gave birth to Child. A couple filed a petition to adopt Child, after which the adoption agency filed a petition to terminate the parental rights of the absent father. Father subsequently learned that Mother had given birth and filed motions seeking to intervene in the adoption proceeding and to secure child custody. The trial court denied Father’s motion to intervene. The trial court then allowed the adoption to proceed without Father’s consent and denied all motions made by him. The court of appeals reversed, concluding that Father’s consent was not required under N.C. Gen. Stat. 48-3-601 but that insufficient facts existed as to whether applying section 48-3-601 to Father would violate his due process rights. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that because Father failed to obtain notice of the birth, to acknowledge paternity, and to establish himself as a responsible parent within the time set by statute, Father fell outside the class of responsible biological fathers who enjoy a constitutionally protected relationship with their natural children. View "In re Adoption of S.D.W." on Justia Law

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The trial court entered two orders, the first of which ceased reunification efforts between Mother and her children, and the second of which terminated Mother's parental rights. Mother appealed, arguing that the trial court's cease reunification order failed to satisfy the requirements of N.C. Gen. Stat. 7B-507, which requires trial courts to make written findings of fact that further reunification efforts would be futile or inconsistent with the child's health, safety, and need for a safe, permanent home. The court of appeals reversed both orders after finding perceived deficiencies in the cease reunification order but without considering the termination of parental rights order. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) the trial court's written findings of fact in a permanency planning order that consider the factors in section 7B-507 need not recite the statutory language verbatim but should address the substance of the statutory requirements; (2) even if the permanency planning order is deficient standing alone, the appellate court should review that order in conjunction with the termination of parental rights order to determine whether the statutory requirements are met; and (3), in this case, both the permanency planning order and the termination of parental rights order complied with the statutory mandate. View "In re L.M.T" on Justia Law

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After filing for divorce from Defendant, Plaintiff sought alimony and attorney's fees. The district court ordered Defendant to pay Plaintiff alimony but reserved the issue of attorney's fees for later determination. Defendant appealed, but the court of appeals dismissed the appeal as untimely, concluding (1) Defendant's unresolved request for attorney's fees rendered his appeal interlocutory, and (2) Defendant failed to have the order certified as immediately appealable under N.C. R. Civ. P. 54(b). The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding (1) the trial court's order was final and immediately appealable because attorney's fees were not part of the substantive claims; and (2) as a party to a final judgment on the merits, Defendant preserved his right to appeal by giving timely notice of his appeal. View "Duncan v. Duncan" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff sought to annul his twelve-year marriage to Defendant on grounds that their marriage was bigamous. The district court concluded that Plaintiff failed to present sufficient evidence to support his claim and dismissed the case. The court of appeals reversed and remanded, concluding that at the time of Defendant's marriage to Plaintiff, Defendant was already married and thus any marriage between Plaintiff and Defendant was bigamous and consequently void. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that from the district court's uncontested findings it followed that Plaintiff failed to show his marriage to Defendant was bigamous, and thus, the district court properly dismissed Plaintiff's annulment action. View "Mussa v Palmer-Mussa" on Justia Law

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The parental rights of Mother to her three children were terminated after a trial in which she waived her right to counsel. The court of appeals vacated the trial court's order and ordered a new termination proceeding, concluding that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing Mother to waive counsel because the court failed to conduct an adequate inquiry under N.C. Gen. Stat. 15A-1242. The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals, holding that section 15A-1242, a criminal statute, has no application in termination of parental rights proceedings. Remanded to the court of appeals to decide whether the role of a guardian ad litem is one of assistance or substitution, one of the issues presented on appeal.

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The trial court entered a disposition order awarding full custody of Child to the Department of Social Services (DSS). Child's mother and father (Respondents) appealed. While Respondents' appeals of the disposition order were pending, DSS filed a motion to terminate Respondents' parental rights. Respondents moved to dismiss the motion, alleging a lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The court of appeals subsequently affirmed the trial court's disposition order. Thereafter, the trial court denied Respondents' motions to dismiss the termination motion. The trial court then terminated Respondents' parental rights. The court of appeals affirmed, holding that, although the termination motion was filed by DSS during the pendency of the appeal from the disposition order, the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction over the motion. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) N.C. Gen. Stat. 7B-1003 prohibits only the exercise of jurisdiction before issuance of the mandate and that issuance of the mandate by the appellate court returns the power to exercise subject matter jurisdiction to the trial court; and (2) because the trial court here did not exercise jurisdiction before the mandate's issuance, Respondents' parental rights were properly terminated.

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After two decades of marriage, William and Teresa Underwood divorced. The district court entered a consent order requiring William to make monthly alimony payments to Teresa. Ten years later, William asked the trial court to terminate his alimony obligation because Teresa was cohabitating with another man. The trial court terminated the alimony payments. The court of appeals reversed, holding that the trial court lacked the authority to terminate or modify the alimony payments because a reciprocal consideration provision in the consent order demonstrated that the parties unambiguously intended the order to be unmodifiable. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the trial court did not err because (1) N.C. Gen. Stat. 50-16.9(b) requires the termination of alimony payments to a dependent spouse who engages in cohabitation, and (2) the reciprocal consideration provision was unenforceable. Remanded.