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Hart v. Hart

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

November 5, 2019

MICHELE ANN HART, Plaintiff,
v.
PAUL BRADLEY HART, Defendant.

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 14 February 2019.

          Appeal by plaintiff from order entered 3 April 2018 by Judge Jena P. Culler in Mecklenburg County No. 14 CVD 21633 District Court.

          Moen Legal Counsel, by Lynna P. Moen, for plaintiff-appellant.

          James, McElroy & Diehl, P.A., by Caroline T. Mitchell, for defendant-appellee.

          ZACHARY, JUDGE.

         Michele Ann Hart ("Plaintiff-Mother") appeals from an order modifying the child support obligation of Paul Bradley Hart ("Defendant-Father"). Plaintiff-Mother argues that the trial court (1) lacked jurisdiction to modify a child support order entered by a Washington court, (2) modified the order without evidence of a substantial change in circumstances, and (3) erred in determining the appropriate amount of Defendant-Father's child support obligation. Upon review, we affirm the trial court's order.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff-Mother and Defendant-Father, while citizens of Washington, married in September 1999, separated in May 2011, and divorced in May 2013. They have three minor children. Between 2011 and 2013, a Washington trial court entered two separate orders relating to custody and child support: a Parenting Plan Final Order ("2011 Custody Order"), and an Order of Child Support ("Support Order"). Because of an error in the Support Order, the Washington court entered a Corrected Order of Child Support ("Corrected Order") obligating Defendant-Father to pay Plaintiff-Mother $1, 839.95 per month in child support.

         In August 2013, Plaintiff-Mother and the children relocated to North Carolina. As a result, a second parenting plan order was entered by the Washington court the following year ("2014 Custody Order"). The 2014 Custody Order modified the custody arrangement to account for the fact that the parties now lived across the country from one another. At the same time, the trial court entered an order correcting a typographical error in the Corrected Order concerning Defendant-Father's obligation to pay a portion of the children's uninsured medical expenses ("Correction of Scrivener's Error").

         In December 2014, Defendant-Father moved to North Carolina. Plaintiff-Mother then filed a motion in Mecklenburg County District Court, requesting that the North Carolina court assume jurisdiction and modify Washington's 2014 Custody Order. The Washington court subsequently entered an order transferring jurisdiction over "all parenting-related issues in this case" to North Carolina.

         On 2 June 2015, Plaintiff-Mother filed a Notice of Registration of Foreign Support Order seeking enforcement of Defendant-Father's child support obligation in North Carolina. Defendant-Father accepted service of the Notice of Registration of Foreign Support Order on 4 January 2016, and did not contest registration. Although Plaintiff-Mother's registration packet included the initial Support Order and the Correction of Scrivener's Error, she omitted the Corrected Order.

         On 6 January 2016, the parties consented to a modification of the custodial arrangement. The North Carolina trial court entered a consent order reflecting the parties' agreement concerning custody of the children ("Child Custody Consent Order").

         On 26 February 2016, Defendant-Father filed a Motion for Modification of Child Support, properly attaching all three parts of the controlling order: (1) the initial Support Order, (2) the Corrected Order, and (3) the Correction of Scrivener's Error. The trial court heard Defendant-Father's motion to modify on 11 October 2017. At the hearing, Plaintiff-Mother moved to dismiss Defendant-Father's motion for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, which was denied in open court. When a second hearing was held on 30 November 2017 before the Honorable Jena P. Culler, Plaintiff-Mother once again moved to dismiss the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. After hearing arguments from both parties, Judge Culler denied the motion.

         At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court found that "there ha[d] been several material and substantial changes in circumstances" since the Support Order's entry in May 2013. By order entered 3 April 2018, the trial court granted Defendant-Father's motion to modify his child support obligation. The trial court ordered Defendant-Father to pay $569.09 per month in child support, effective 26 February 2016, the date on which he filed his motion to modify. Ultimately, the trial court's modification entitled Defendant-Father to a $26, 676.30 credit. Plaintiff-Mother timely appealed.

         II. UIFSA

         Plaintiff-Mother first challenges the trial court's authority to modify Defendant-Father's child support obligation. Specifically, Plaintiff-Mother asserts that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the matter. We disagree.

         The instant case is governed by the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act ("UIFSA"), codified in Chapter 52C of our General Statutes. See generally N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 52C-1-100 to -9-902. "UIFSA governs the proceedings concerning the enforceability of any foreign support order that is registered in North Carolina after 1 January 1996." Uhrig v. Madaras, 174 N.C.App. 357, 359, 620 S.E.2d 730, 732 (2005) (citation omitted), disc. review denied, 360 N.C. 367, 630 S.E.2d 455 (2006).

         UIFSA is a federally mandated uniform model act that was enacted "as a mechanism to reduce the multiple, conflicting child support orders existing in numerous states[.]" New Hanover Cty. v. Kilbourne, 157 N.C.App. 239, 243, 578 S.E.2d 610, 613-14 (2003). Designed to remedy flaws and inconsistencies that existed under previous interstate legislation, see id. at 241-43, 578 S.E.2d at 612-13, UIFSA allows for "only . . . one controlling support order at any given time." Uhrig, 174 N.C.App. at 360, 620 S.E.2d at 732. Under UIFSA's "one order" system, all states "are required to recognize and enforce the same obligation consistently." Kilbourne, 157 N.C.App. at 243, 578 S.E.2d at 614.

         The concept of "continuing, exclusive jurisdiction" is crucial to determining whether North Carolina has jurisdiction to modify, or merely enforce, a child support order issued by another state. "Any [child support order] issued by a court of another state may be registered in North Carolina for enforcement" by following the procedures set forth under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 52C-6-602. Twaddell v. Anderson, 136 N.C.App. 56, 60, 523 S.E.2d 710, 714 (1999), disc. review denied, 351 N.C. 480, 543 S.E.2d 510 (2000). A support order issued in another state is registered and enforceable in North Carolina upon filing. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 52C-6-603(a)-(b); see also id. § 52C-1-101(14) (" 'Register' means to file in a tribunal of this State a support order or judgment determining parentage of a child issued in another state or a foreign country.").

         Registering a sister state's child support order for enforcement, however, does not automatically vest North Carolina courts with authority to modify the order. See id. § 52C-6-603(c) ("Except as otherwise provided . . . a tribunal of this State shall recognize and enforce, but may not modify, a registered . . . order if the issuing tribunal had jurisdiction."). Indeed, "[o]nce a foreign child support order has been registered in North Carolina, it can be modified by a North Carolina court only if the issuing state has lost continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over the order." Lombardi v. Lombardi, 157 N.C.App. 540, 543, 579 S.E.2d 419, 420 (2003).

         The issuing state loses continuing, exclusive jurisdiction "in two situations: (1) if neither the child nor any of the parties continue to reside in the state; or (2) if each of the parties consented to the assumption of jurisdiction by another state." Uhrig, 174 N.C.App. at 360, 620 S.E.2d at 732 (citation omitted). The foreign support order remains enforceable even after the issuing state has lost continuing, exclusive jurisdiction; however, a North Carolina court lacks authority to modify the order unless the requirements of N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 52C-6-611 or 52C-6-613 are met. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 52C-6-610. If no other state has continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over the order and all of the individual parties currently reside in North Carolina, "a tribunal of this State has jurisdiction to enforce and to modify the issuing state's child support order in a proceeding to register that order." Id. § 52C-6-613(a).

         "Whether the trial court complied with the registration procedures set out in UIFSA is a question of law reviewed de novo on appeal." Crenshaw v. Williams, 211 N.C.App. 136, 139-40, 710 S.E.2d 227, 230 (2011).

         In the instant case, Plaintiff-Mother, Defendant-Father, and their three children were living in Washington when a court of that state entered the initial Support Order in May 2013. Thus, Washington retained continuing, exclusive jurisdiction to modify its support order until the parties moved or consented to another state's exercise of jurisdiction. Plaintiff-Mother and the children moved to North Carolina in August 2013; Defendant-Father followed soon thereafter, establishing residence in North Carolina in December 2014. Plaintiff-Mother registered the Support Order and the Correction of Scrivener's Error-but not the Corrected Order-in Mecklenburg County in June 2015. Defendant-Father filed his motion to modify his child support obligation on 26 February 2016. At that time, both parties and all of their children were North Carolina residents. No state possessed continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over the controlling order, nor did the parties consent to the exercise of jurisdiction by Washington or any other state. Therefore, pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 52C-6-613(a), the trial court had jurisdiction to enforce and modify the Washington support order.

         Nevertheless, as she unsuccessfully argued at two separate hearings before the trial court, Plaintiff-Mother contends that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to modify the Corrected Order, because it was never registered in North Carolina. However, registration is a procedural requirement, not a jurisdictional one. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 52C-6-601 cmt. (providing that "registration is a process, and the failure to register does not deprive an otherwise appropriate forum of subject matter jurisdiction"). And as this Court has recognized, a party is not required to strictly adhere to § 52C-6-602's procedural requirements in order to register a support order issued by another state; rather, "substantial compliance" is sufficient "to accomplish registration of the foreign order." Twaddell, 136 N.C.App. at 60, 523 S.E.2d at 714 (holding that "the trial court erred in finding that [the] plaintiff had not met the registration requirements of UIFSA" where, notwithstanding the plaintiff's omission of certain required documentation, the registration packet substantially complied with N.C. Gen. Stat. § 52C-6-602). Although this Court is not bound by case law from other jurisdictions, see State v. J.C., 372 N.C. 203, 210, 827 S.E.2d 280, 285 (2019), we note that the Twaddell Court's interpretation of UIFSA's registration requirements is consistent with that reached by courts of other jurisdictions.[1]

         In the case at bar, the controlling order is composed of three parts: (1) the Error. Stated another way, there is one controlling order, which was corrected twice by the issuing court in Washington. When Plaintiff-Mother registered the order for enforcement in North Carolina, she included in her UIFSA registration packet the Support Order and the Correction of Scrivener's Error, but she failed to include the Corrected Order. Nevertheless, Plaintiff-Mother's inadvertent omission was not a fatal error in this case.

         Plaintiff-Mother substantially complied with N.C. Gen. Stat. § 52C-6-602 by registering two of the three parts of the controlling order. As for the third portion of the controlling order, Plaintiff-Mother referred to the omitted Corrected Order in several filings before the trial court. Indeed, on the same day that Plaintiff-Mother registered the controlling order for enforcement in North Carolina, she also filed a motion in the same court seeking to have Defendant-Father held in contempt of court in North Carolina for his alleged failure to comply with specific terms of the Corrected Order that she failed to include in her UIFSA registration packet. Plaintiff-Mother also referred to the Corrected Order in her second motion to have Defendant-Father held in contempt of court in North Carolina based on the same grounds. The trial court's order denying both of Plaintiff-Mother's motions specifically references terms of the Corrected Order. Defendant-Father also attached copies of the initial Support Order and the two corrections to his motion to modify. Accordingly, neither Plaintiff- Mother nor Defendant-Father were prejudiced by Plaintiff-Mother's failure to strictly comply with all of the statutory registration procedures.

         Finally, under the provisions of UIFSA, the trial court had jurisdiction to modify Defendant-Father's child support obligation. The official comment to § 52C-6-609, "Procedure to register child support order of another state for modification," provides, in pertinent part:

If the tribunal has the requisite personal jurisdiction over the parties and may assume subject matter jurisdiction as provided in Sections 611 or 613, modification may be sought independently, in conjunction with registration and enforcement, or at a later date after the order has been registered and enforced if circumstances have changed.

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 52C-6-609 cmt. Despite her procedural error, Plaintiff-Mother registered the controlling support order in North Carolina. As explained above, Washington lost-and North Carolina gained-continuing, exclusive jurisdiction to modify that order, because all parties resided in North Carolina when Defendant-Father filed his motion to modify.

         In sum, the controlling order is composed of three parts: (1) the initial Support Order, (2) the Corrected Order, and (3) the Correction of Scrivener's Error. That Plaintiff-Mother inadvertently omitted the Corrected Order from her UIFSA registration packet did not deprive our courts of ...


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