Under the United States Constitution, and under North Carolina law, parents have the “paramount right to custody, care, and nurture” of their minor children.” This is otherwise known as the “superior rights doctrine,” and essentially, it means that parents are considered to have rights that are superior to those of non-parents when it comes to determining and acting in the best interests of their children. Thus, for the most part, in North Carolina and across the country, courts will seek to allow parents to maintain custody of their children whenever it is possible.
In certain instances, however, parents may be unwilling or unable to provide a safe and nurturing environment for their children. In those situations, the court may consider other options, and grandparents may seek to petition the court for custody of their grandchildren. Certainly, if you are a parent or a grandparent who finds yourself in this situation, consulting an attorney should be your first step.
Generally, however, it can be helpful to know that as a grandparent seeking custody of your grandchildren under the North Carolina General Statutes, in order to seek custody of your grandchildren, you must be able to demonstrate to the court that the child’s parents are unable to fulfill their parental duties, which essentially means that you must establish that the parents have taken actions that are inconsistent with their paramount constitutional right to custody of the child(ren). While there are different ways to meet this burden of proof, in some cases grandparents may show that an unfit parent may:
· Have abandoned their child;
· Have continually neglected their child;
· Have abused their child;
· Have shown an ongoing pattern of substance abuse;
· Have decided to voluntarily give up custody of their child;
· Be unable to provide a safe and nurturing home for their child;
· Have a proven history of domestic violence;
· Be unable in other ways to provide the safe and nurturing home that the child needs to grow and thrive.
If, considering the law and the proof that is required to obtain custody you believe you can do so, you can proceed to seek custody under N.C. Gen. Stat §50-13.1(a). Under this provision, you can file your claim for custody at any time, provided you can establish standing to do so. Standing simply means that the person who is seeking the custody has a right or interest that is recognized and protected under the law. Certainly, the ultimate determination as to whether or not a grandparent is granted custody will be left to the discretion of the court, as is the case with all custody matters.
In other situations, grandparents may only be interested in seeking visitation with their grandchildren, as opposed to full custody. In that situation, parents continue to have the paramount authority with respect to the care and well-being of their children. Accordingly, unless certain elements of proof are met, it is unlikely that a court will order a parent to allow visitation with their grandchildren. While grandparents do have a right to file a motion to intervene in an ongoing custody action between the parents to seek visitation, this does not mean that the request will be granted. Generally, and absent extraordinary and extenuating circumstances, courts feel that the parents are best suited to make this determination on their own.
 North Carolina law does recognize two situations in which a non-parent has standing to seek custody of a child, including when: (1)The non-parent has a parent-like relationship with the child (when the person has assumed parental duties and has an emotional attachment to the child similar to that of a parent; or (2)The non-parent has a biological or adoptive relationship with the child, and there are allegations of abuse, neglect, or unfitness against the child’s parent(s).
If you need to speak with an experienced divorce attorney regarding grandparent visitation and custody, please contact Adkins Law to arrange a consultation.