Here are some common questions about child custody in North Carolina.
If there isn’t a custody order already in place, either parent can file a request for a custody order at any time. Parents can reach their own custody agreements in North Carolina or leave matters up to a judge to decide.
In many cases, a judge will order the parents to attend mediation before scheduling trial. Many couples are able to work out custody agreements in North Carolina with the help of a mediator. If mediation is not successful, a judge will set your case for trial.
North Carolina custody laws require a judge to decide custody by determining what will best “promote the interest and welfare of the child.” In other words, a judge will base any custody decision on a child’s best interests. There’s no set of factors that a court must consider to determine the child’s needs and best interests.
Custody decisions in North Carolina depend upon the unique circumstances of your case. However, in most cases a judge will evaluate the following:
In North Carolina, there’s no preference for mothers over fathers in a custody dispute. A judge will design a custody arrangement according to the child’s needs and best interests.
However, a parent with a history of domestic violence may have limits placed on his or her custody rights. While a judge won’t necessarily deny a violent parent visitation with the child, a judge may order supervised visits, to ensure the child’s safety while in that parent’s care.
Ultimately, a child’s best interests will dictate the outcome of your custody case.
North Carolina’s custody guidelines differentiate between physical and legal custody. “Physical custody” refers to parenting time and which parent lives with the child. In a joint physical custody situation, both parents spend significant amounts of time with their children, although not necessarily equal time.
In a sole physical custody arrangement, the child primarily lives with one parent and the other parent is entitled to frequent and regular visits with the child.
A parent with “legal custody” can make major decisions on the child’s behalf, including medical, educational, and religious decisions. Parents who share joint legal custody will make decisions together about the child’s welfare. A parent with sole legal custody can take actions that will affect the child’s upbringing without consulting the child’s other parent. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50-13.2 (2020).
Both parents are entitled to visitation (also called “parenting time”) with their kids. The parent without primary physical custody of the child will receive court-ordered visitation or parenting time.
North Carolina’s custody laws have established minimum guideline amounts for parenting time. This usually translates to one weeknight per week and visits every other weekend. A court can award either parent more than the minimum guideline amount, but not less except in cases where a child’s safety is at issue.
Individuals other than a child’s parents (such as grandparents) can request visitation during an active divorce, separation, or custody dispute. A judge can order grandparent visitation as part of the custody order, if it’s in the children’s best interests.
The same best interests criteria that applies to the parents’ custody case is relevant in a case involving grandparent visitation rights. For more information on grandparent rights in North Carolina, read our article Do Grandparents Have Visitation Rights in North Carolina?
Either parent in a custody dispute can ask the court for a custody evaluation. A custody evaluation is performed by a trained professional (called a “custody evaluator”). The custody evaluator acts objectively and assesses each parent’s abilities regarding custody. A custody evaluator in your case might be appointed by the court or chosen by the parents.
Your past won’t necessarily define you in a custody case, but you’ll have to show a judge how you have changed and you shouldn’t expect to get full custody right away. If you have been an absentee parent, you’ll need to spend the time to get involved in your child’s life. It’s important that you get to know your child's teachers, counselors, and coaches, and even more importantly, your child.
If you have been a poor parent because of substance abuse issues, you’ll have to demonstrate to the court and your child’s other parent that you’ve received treatment and are prepared to tackles the responsibilities associated with 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. Overcoming your past actions may take time.
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 supervised visitation might be appropriate. Judges rarely cut-off a parent’s contact with a child completely.
A parent will lose visitation rights only in the most extreme circumstances, but often that’s for a limited period of time until the parent can prove that the situation which posed a risk to the child has improved.
Parents should come to trial prepared with evidence and witnesses that support their claims for custody. Typical witnesses might include the child's teachers, counselors, and family members or friends who have firsthand knowledge of relevant events.
Additionally, both parents will usually testify in a custody case about their relationship with the child, role in the child’s life, and ability to meet the child’s needs.
In North Carolina, it is up to the judge whether the child will testify in court or in the judge’s chambers (also called “in camera”). In most cases, judges try to avoid putting a child on the witness stand.
There are several ways to obtain a child’s testimony outside of the courtroom. Specifically, a judge can appoint a custody evaluator or guardian ad litem to represent the child’s interests in court.
A judge can also interview a child in chambers. Parents cannot attend in-chambers interviews, but their attorneys can and a court reporter will also be present to record the child’s testimony.
Whether you receive child support in your case will depend on your custody arrangement and each parent’s income. A judge may still award child support in your case even if you and your ex share custody. Your child support award will depend on each parent’s income and whether additional financial support is warranted.
North Carolina has established child support guidelines to help parents calculate their estimated child support award or obligation. The guidelines take into account both parents’ gross income and contributions for health insurance, child care costs, and any extra expenses.
A parent who wants a change to a custody order may request a modification at any time, as long as the parent seeking the change shows there’s been a substantial and material change affecting the best interest and welfare of the child.
A judge won’t modify custody simply because a parent has remarried or had a new baby. Instead, a judge will adjust custody when the major change impacts the child’s well-being, such as when a parent is undergoing cancer treatment. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50-13.7 (2020).
Unless the other parent’s parental rights have been terminated, you cannot change a minor child's last name without that parent's consent.