Child Custody in North Carolina: The Best Interests of the Child

Learn about the "best interests" standard and how it applies to child custody cases in North Carolina.

Establishing a child custody arrangement can be one of the most difficult parts of a divorce. It is best for divorcing parents to reach agreement on a parenting plan that is in the child’s best interest, but courts will make a custody decision if parents aren’t able to agree.

How North Carolina Courts Make Custody Decisions

In North Carolina, courts must decide child custody by evaluating what “will best promote the interest and welfare of the child.” (N.C.G.S.A. § 50-13.2(a).) Courts determine the interest of a child by examining all of the relevant factors of the child’s domestic life. North Carolina law does not list all of the factors that will be considered, but does mention several helpful examples, including whether domestic violence has occurred or will occur, as well as the overall safety of the child. Other examples of factors may include the child’s current living arrangement and relationship with both parents, each parent’s ability to provide for the child, and whether each parent creates a stable home environment.

North Carolina law also does not presume that either a mother or father should be preferred to promote the child’s best interest or that a natural parent promotes a child’s best interest rather than an adoptive parent.

A court may grant joint or sole custody, and either parent can make the request for a judge to grant joint custody. The order for custody should also address visitation guidelines. Generally, each parent should have full access to a child’s medical and school records.

North Carolina courts will take domestic violence into account so as to place the child in the safest possible environment. Repeated or severe instances of domestic violence or sexual abuse are deemed worse for children than an isolated incident of violence.

Grandparents may petition for custody rights in North Carolina, or for visitation. If, however, the child has been adopted and the rights of the biological parents have been terminated, the parents of the biological parents cannot seek custody rights.    

An order of custody in North Carolina may permit parents to take a child out of state temporarily, but if the order states that the parent must return the child to the home state, the parent who removes the child may be required to pay a certain amount of money as financial security to make sure that the child is returned. The idea is to protect the custodial rights of both parents by preventing one parent from fleeing with the child.

When a parent lives a great distance way or visitation isn’t possible for some other reason, North Carolina law provides that electronic communication (“e-communication”) may serve as a substitute. This might include email, video services such as Skype, or a webcam. A judge will consider whether allowing e-communication is available or in a child’s best interests. While a substitute for visitation, e-communication is not a substitute for custodial responsibilities. For example, a parent with custody would not be fulfilling their parental duty if that parent interacted with the child only through Skype or email. The court will make specific orders regarding the use of e-communication, including scheduling and who will be responsible for costs.

For more answers to questions about child custody in North Carolina, see North Carolina Child Custody FAQs.

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