ELIZABETH LAIRD PELZER GREEN, f/k/a KELISCHEK, Plaintiff.
NICHOLAS G. KELISCHEK, Defendant
Heard in the Court of Appeals February 17, 2014.
Buncombe County. No. 10 CVD 1666. Andrea F. Dray, Judge.
Wyrick Robbins Yates & Ponton LLP, by Tobias S. Hampson and K. Edward Greene, for plaintiff-appellant.
Steven Kropelnicki, PC, by Steven Kropelnicki, for defendant-appellee.
Robert N. HUNTER, JR., Judge. Chief Judge MARTIN and Judge ELMORE concur.
Appeal by plaintiff from custody order entered 13
February 2013 by Judge Andrea F. Dray in Buncombe County District Court.
Robert N. HUNTER, JR., Judge.
Elizabeth Laird Pelzer Green (" Plaintiff" ) appeals fro a custody modification order granting school year custody of her minor child, C.K., to his father, Nicholas G. Kelischek (" Defendant" ), in the event Plaintiff moves outside of North Carolina or 125 miles away from Cherokee County. Plaintiff contends that the trial court erred in concluding that a substantial change in circumstances had occurred warranting modification of the parties' existing custody plan. In the alternative, Plaintiff contends that the trial court erred in concluding that it was in the best interest of C.K. to remain in North Carolina. For the following reasons, we affirm the trial court's order.
I. Factual & Procedural History
Plaintiff and Defendant married on 27 April 2006, separated in May 2008, and subsequently divorced on 26 April 2010. During the marriage, Plaintiff and Defendant had one child, C.K., who was born in December 2006.
On 25 March 2010, Plaintiff and Defendant entered into a separation agreement, which was incorporated into the decree of divorce to be enforceable as the judgment and order of the trial court. Pursuant to said agreement, each parent shared joint legal custody of C.K. Plaintiff had primary physical custody of C.K. during the week and Defendant had physical custody each weekend. By all accounts, Plaintiff and Defendant have, with reasonable adjustments, followed this custody plan since their divorce. C.K., who is now seven years old, has lived with this schedule since the age of two.
The custody plan agreed to by Plaintiff and Defendant is contingent on the parties' residence. Specifically, the separation agreement provides that " [Defendant] and [Plaintiff] agree that . . . he/she will not move more than 125 miles outside of Cherokee County, North Carolina, unless otherwise agreed upon by the parties in writing or upon Order of the Court." Accordingly, at all times since their divorce, C.K. has resided with Plaintiff in Asheville on weekdays and with Defendant in Brasstown on weekends.
On 5 November 2012, Plaintiff filed a motion to modify custody, contending that there had been a substantial change in circumstances impacting C.K. since entry of the original custody order. Defendant moved to dismiss Plaintiff's motion, claiming that the motion was facially deficient, and, in the alternative, moved the trial court to modify custody giving him primary physical custody of C.K. The matter came on for a hearing before the trial court on 14 January 2013. Evidence at the hearing tended to show the following.
Since the parties' divorce, Plaintiff has maintained a residence in Asheville, albeit at three different locations. Plaintiff has not worked since C.K.'s birth and is currently unable to support herself financially. Nevertheless, Plaintiff has been attentive to C.K.'s needs, encouraging C.K. to participate in extracurricular activities and attending to C.K.'s medical needs.
In June 2011, Plaintiff rekindled a romantic relationship with Mr. Dominic Green (" Mr. Green" ), a man she dated in high school. Mr. Green currently lives in Portland, Oregon. On 25 May 2012, Plaintiff married Mr. Green. Plaintiff has not relocated to Oregon but desires to do so.
Since resuming a relationship with Mr. Green, Plaintiff has traveled to Oregon several times, including trips with C.K. Mr. Green has two children from a previous marriage of which he does not have primary custody. Mr. Green lives in a small condo, but has indicated he will buy a house and provide for Plaintiff and C.K. if they move to Oregon. Neither Mr. Green nor Plaintiff have extended family in Oregon. C.K.'s maternal grandmother and great-grandmother are in North Carolina.
Since the parties' divorce, Defendant has lived near C.K.'s paternal grandparents in Brasstown and has worked in the family's instrument manufacturing and distribution business. Defendant's housing situation is stable and C.K. has his own room when staying with Defendant. Defendant has consistently exercised his weekend custody of C.K. and has also been attentive to C.K.'s developmental needs. Defendant's extended family is actively involved in C.K.'s life. Defendant is currently engaged to Ms. Misty Taylor (" Ms. Taylor" ), whom he has known for three years. Ms. Taylor has met C.K. and has a warm relationship with him.
C.K. is a well-adjusted, healthy, and happy child. C.K. participates actively in extracurricular activities in both Asheville and Brasstown. C.K. is aware that Plaintiff wishes to relocate them to Oregon and is aware that the proposed relocation has placed tension between Plaintiff and Defendant. C.K. exhibited separation anxiety on one occasion when leaving Defendant to return with Plaintiff to Asheville.
C.K. is now old enough to attend school. Anticipating that C.K.'s education would necessitate changes to the custody plan, the parties' separation agreement included the following:
When [C.K.] begins school, [Defendant] and [Plaintiff] agree to negotiate any necessary revisions to the visitation schedule. The parenting schedule will be reviewed each and every year in the month of June and tailored to meet the needs of both parents and [C.K.'s] development.
Notwithstanding this provision, there has been conflict between the parties as to whether C.K. should attend public school or be home-schooled by Plaintiff.
Upon hearing the foregoing and other record evidence, the trial court concluded that there had been a substantial change in circumstances since the entry of the divorce decree warranting modification of the original custody order. Accordingly, by order dated 13 February 2013, the trial court denied Defendant's motion to dismiss and concluded:
That Plaintiff shall be entitled to the school year custody of the minor child and the minor child shall attend school within the Plaintiff's school districts provided the Plaintiff/mother continues to reside within 125 miles of Cherokee County, North Carolina. That should the Plaintiff/mother reside outside of North Carolina or outside of 125 miles of Cherokee County, North Carolina, the Defendant/father shall be entitled to the school year custody of the minor child and the minor child shall attend school within the Defendant's school districts.
Plaintiff filed timely notice of appeal.
II. Jurisdiction & Standard of Review
Plaintiff's appeal lies of right to this Court pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-27(b) (2013).
" When reviewing a trial court's decision to grant or deny a motion for the modification of an existing child custody order, the appellate courts must examine the trial court's findings of fact to determine whether they are supported by substantial evidence." Shipman v. Shipman, 357 N.C. 471, 474, 586 S.E.2d 250, 253 (2003). Substantial evidence is " such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate
to support a conclusion." Id. (citation and quotation marks omitted). " A trial court's unchallenged findings of fact are presumed to be supported by competent evidence and [are] binding on appeal." Respess v. Respess, __ N.C.App. __, __, 754 S.E.2d 691, 695 (2014) (citation and quotation marks omitted). Here, Plaintiff has not challenged the trial court's findings of fact, so we consider them binding before this Court.
However, " [i]n addition to evaluating whether a trial court's findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence, this Court must determine if the trial court's factual findings support its conclusions of law." Shipman, 357 N.C at 475, 586 S.E.2d at 254. " If the trial court's uncontested findings of fact support its conclusions of law, we must affirm the trial court's order." Respess,
__ N.C.App. at __, 754 S.E.2d at 695 (citation and quotation marks omitted); see also Everette v. Collins, 176 N.C.App. 168, 171, 625 S.E.2d 796, 798 (2006) (" Absent ...