North Carolina Child Custody FAQs

Answers to common questions about child custody in North Carolina.

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Here are some common questions about child custody in North Carolina.

Who will get custody of our children?

In North Carolina, there is no preference for either parent in a custody dispute. The court makes custody decisions on the basis of what is the best interest of the child. Learm more about best interest of the child in North Carolina.

When can I get an order for child custody?

If there is no order or agreement already in place, either parent can file a request for a custody order at any time. The court will require parents to go to mediation to try to work out an agreement before a judge will hear the case. 

Can a child custody order be modified?

A parent who wants a change to a custody order may request one at any time, as long as the parent seeking the change can show that there has been a substantial and material change affecting the best interest and welfare of the child.

What rights do grandparents have to custody and visitation in North Carolina?

Judges in North Carolina can order visitation for grandparents as part of the custody order, if the judge believes it would be in the children’s best interests.

What is visitation in North Carolina?

Courts used to typically grant custody to one parent with visitation rights to the other. Now, judges usually divide custody into “primary” and “secondary” custody, so that neither parent has visitation but both have meaningful custody time.

What is joint custody? What is sole custody?

Joint physical custody means that both parents spent significant time with the children, but the time split doesn’t have to be equal. The parents can define what joint custody means to them. Sole physical custody means that the child lives with one parent for significantly more time than the other.

Joint legal custody means that the parents make decisions together about the child’s welfare, including things like medical care and education. Sole physical custody means that only one parent has the authority to make those decisions, and isn’t require to consult with the other parent before taking actions that affect the child.

What is a custody evaluation and when should one be conducted?

Either parent in a custody dispute can ask the court for a custody evaluation, meaning that an objective third party is paid to assess each of the parents in order to assist the court in making a determination as to custody. The evaluator might be appointed by the court or chosen by the parents. Learn more about child custody evaluations.

What can I do to improve my chances of gaining custody if I have not been a terrific parent in the past?

You will have to take the time to show that you have changed, and you shouldn’t expect an immediate change in custody. If you have been an absentee parent, spend the time to get involved in your child’s life. Get to know your child's teachers, counselors, and coaches—but more important, get to know your child. If you have been a poor parent because of substance abuse issues, get treatment and be ready to prove to the other parent and the court that you are sober and prepared to take on the responsibilities of parenting. You can also take parenting or anger management classes if that’s appropriate. No matter what actions you take, be patient and don’t expect the other parent, the child, or a judge to trust you right away.

Can a judge order no visitation or supervised visitation?

Judges have a lot of discretion in making child custody awards. When one parent has a history of abusive behavior, substance abuse, or other actions that might create a danger to the child, a judge might order supervised visitation. If the situation is really extreme, the judge might deny visitation completely for a period of time, until the parent showed that the situation had changed.

How will I present evidence if custody must be litigated in court?

If parents are completely unable to reach agreement on how to share time with their children, they must ask a judge to make a decision. Each parent must present evidence, including witness testimony, to support that parent’s assertion about what custody arrangement is appropriate. Typical witnesses might include the child's teachers, counselors, and family members or friends who have firsthand knowledge of relevant events.

 Will my child have to speak in court?

In North Carolina, it is up to the judge whether the testimony of the child takes place in the courtroom or in the judge’s chambers (also called “in camera”). Most often, a child’s testimony will be heard in chambers.

Do children get to decide who they will live with?

In North Carolina, a judge may consider a child's preference for custody as long as the child is mature enough. Some case law in North Carolina suggests that it a child who is ten or older may provide input to the Judge who is making custody decisions.

If I have custody, will I receive child support? What if custody is shared?

Only a person with legal custody can request child support, and having custody doesn’t mean you will get child support automatically—you’ll have to ask for it. You can get child support even if you share custody with the other parents, if the numbers justify it. The amount of child support is based on state guideline that take into account both parents’ gross income and contributions for health insurance, child care costs, and any extra expenses. Get more information about child support.

Can I change my minor child's last name without permission from the other parent?

Unless the other parent’s parental rights have been terminated, you cannot change a minor child's last name without that parent's consent.

Can a parent refuse to allow visitation if child support is not paid?

Child support and visitation are legally unrelated. A parent who is required to pay child support must pay it even if the other parent denies visitation.

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