How Do I File for Divorce in North Carolina?

After being separated for a year, North Carolina spouses can file for an absolute divorce.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Every state has its own rules and procedures for filing a divorce. Here's what you need to know to get started with your North Carolina divorce (also called "absolute divorce").

Separation and Residency Requirements for Divorce in North Carolina

A married couple can't get a divorce in North Carolina until they have lived separate and apart for at least one year. If there's any question about whether the couple was truly separated for the whole year, the court will look at the "totality of the circumstances" to make a decision. If the spouses engage in isolated incidents of sexual intercourse during their separation period, it won't necessarily mean that they have broken the required separation period. (N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 50-6, 52-10.2 (2022).)

You must also meet the state's residency requirement: Either you or your spouse must have been a resident of North Carolina for at least six months just before you file for divorce. But you don't have to wait an additional six months after the year-long separation. (N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 50-6, 50-8 (2023).)

The Grounds for Divorce in North Carolina

North Carolina is a "no-fault" divorce state—meaning that the courts don't require one spouse to prove that the other's bad acts were the cause of the divorce. It's typically easier to get a no-fault divorce than a fault-based one, because you won't need to prove the misconduct claims. But in North Carolina, you'll need to go through a lengthy separation period before filing for divorce.

A North Carolina court will find that there is good reason ("grounds") for divorce when the spouses have lived separate and apart:

  • for more than one year, or
  • for three consecutive years because of one spouse's incurable insanity.

(N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 50-6, 50-5.1 (2023).)

How to File for Divorce in North Carolina

Generally, there are two types of divorce—uncontested and contested. An uncontested divorce is one where the spouses agree on all divorce-related matters, such as division of property, child custody, and alimony (spousal support). A contested divorce, on the other hand, is one where the spouses disagree on at least one topic and must ask a court to decide the issues in their divorce.

Uncontested divorces usually are quicker and less expensive than contested divorces, because there's no fighting in court. Instead, the judge needs only to review and approve the spouses' marital settlement agreement before signing the divorce decree.

To get a divorce in North Carolina, you'll need to file your divorce paperwork with the clerk of the court in the county where one of the spouses lives.

How to File an Uncontested Divorce in North Carolina

When you and your spouse have agreed on the issues in your divorce, the next step in getting an uncontested divorce in North Carolina is to file the required paperwork. Check with the clerk of the court to confirm what's required, but in most courts you'll need to file the following:

These are the basic forms to get started with a North Carolina divorce. Depending on your situation you might have to file different or additional forms (relating to topics such as child custody or alimony).

How to File a Contested Divorce in North Carolina

A contested divorce begins when one of the spouses files a Complaint for Absolute Divorce with the court. In North Carolina, many of the documents you need for a contested divorce are the same as the forms for an uncontested divorce. However, most contested divorces will require you to file additional documents relating to matters that you and your spouse don't agree on.

Your spouse has 30 days after being served with the divorce papers to respond to the complaint by either filing an Answer or a motion (request) for an extension of time to file an Answer. After the 30 days have passed, you can contact the clerk's office and get a date for a hearing on your divorce.

At the hearing, the judge will ask you questions about your marriage and separation. After the judge hears both sides' arguments, the court will enter a Judgment of Absolute Divorce. Your divorce will be considered final on the date the judge signs the judgment.

Many North Carolina divorces are finalized within 90 days after the responding spouse is served with the Complaint. However, some divorces take longer, especially when the spouses can't agree on an issue or the court's calendar is full.

Divorce Filing Fees in North Carolina

Along with filing the right paperwork, you'll have to pay court filing fees to begin your divorce. As of January 2023, the filing fees for an absolute divorce in North Carolina total $225. To have a sheriff serve the divorce papers on your spouse, it's another $30, and if you want to restore your former name after the divorce the fee is $10.

If you can't afford to pay the filing fees, you can ask the court to waive the fees. To request a fee waiver, file a Petition to Proceed as an Indigent. If the court grants the petition, you won't have to pay any court filing fees or a service of process fee to the sheriff. File your Petition to Proceed as an Indigent at the same time you file your Complaint.

Serving Your Spouse in North Carolina

Once you file the paperwork, you will need to provide notice of the divorce to your spouse through what's known as "service of process." You may use one of the following methods to serve the complaint and summons:

  • Service by sheriff. This is the most straightforward method of service in North Carolina, and it costs $30. In some courts, you can pay the fee to the court clerk at the same time you file your Complaint, and the clerk will provide the sheriff with the paperwork to serve on your spouse. In other courts, you might have to deliver the fee and paperwork to the sheriff yourself.
  • Service by mail or delivery service. You may serve your spouse by sending the paperwork by certified or registered mail with a return receipt requested. After the post office delivers the paperwork, you'll receive a receipt that provides proof that your spouse was served. You may also send the documents through an authorized delivery service that will provide you with a delivery receipt. File an Affidavit of Service and the receipt with the court.
  • Waiver of service. If your spouse is cooperative, you can mail the papers along with an Acceptance of Service form. Your spouse will need to sign the acceptance form in front of a notary, and the signed and notarized form must be filed with the court.
  • Service by publication. If you don't know where your spouse is, ask the court clerk if you can serve "by publication." In most cases, this means placing a notice about the pending divorce in a newspaper.

(N.C. Rules Civ. Proc., rule 4 (2023).)

Getting Help Filing Your North Carolina Divorce

If you'd like to DIY your divorce, take a look at the North Carolina Judicial Branch's website for more information. The North Carolina Divorce Packet and Legal Aid of North Carolina's Divorce Packet also provide detailed instructions on how to file a divorce.

If you're working with an attorney, your attorney will assess your situation and fill out, file, and serve all the necessary forms. Many divorcing couples can't afford to hire an attorney to handle their entire case, but would like some assistance with completing and filing their forms. If this describes your situation, consider using an online divorce service or finding an attorney who will consult with you on an as-needed basis. Low-income individuals might qualify for reduced-fee or free legal aid.