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Child Custody in North Carolina


What is child custody and visitation?

Child custody includes the right to make major life decisions about a child and the right to have the child in your care. Visitation is a secondary form of custody, which includes the right to visit with a child at times set forth in a court order, sometimes under specific conditions. “Visitation” is frequently used to refer to a person’s parenting time when it is relatively limited.

What is the difference between legal and physical custody?

Legal custody is the right to make major decisions about the child. Physical custody means the right to have the child in your physical care, either all the time or part of the time.  Both legal and physical custody can be either shared by the parents or held solely by one parent.

What do sole custody and joint custody mean?

A parent who has sole legal custody can make major decisions about the child’s life without consulting the other parent. If parents have joint legal custody, then they must consult one another and jointly make major decisions, such as where the child will attend school or whether the child will have a major medical procedure. If the parents cannot agree, a court may have to make the decision.

Sole physical custody means that the child lives with one parent only, though the child may visit with the other parent. Joint physical custody means that the child’s time is split between the parents. There are many possibilities for joint physical custody. One parent may have primary physical custody, meaning the child lives with that parent most of the time, while the other parent has secondary physical custody, for example, every other weekend, or regularly scheduled dinner visits. Alternatively, there may be an equal split in which the child alternates between the parents on a regular basis.

Am I required to get a custody order?

Parents who are no longer together are not required to get a custody order, but may choose to do so in case they do not agree about the child’s care. Non-parents do not need a custody order to provide temporary care for a child as long as the parents agree that the child will live with or be cared for by the non-parent. However, schools, medical providers or other third parties may require a custody order before allowing a non-parent to make decisions for a child. 

What happens if there is no custody order?

Both legal parents have equal rights to the child if there is no custody order. “Legal parents” are people officially recognized as parents on the child’s birth certificate, a court order such as a child support or adoption order, or an affidavit of parentage. Without a custody order, the rights of non-parents are much more limited, and the parents generally have the right to custody of the child.

What happens when the child turns 18?

At age 18, your child is legally an adult, and the courts no longer have the authority to order custody or visitation.

Does the law prefer one parent over the other?

No. Either parent can be awarded custody of a child of any age, depending on the family’s specific circumstances.

Does failing to pay child support affect a parent’s custody rights?

A parent’s custody rights do not depend on payment of child support, but on the type of relationship with the parent that is in the child’s best interests. A court may consider refusal to pay child support in its analysis of the parent’s ability to act in the child’s best interests.

What is an emergency custody order?

An emergency custody order, sometimes referred to as an “ex parte order,” is an immediate, short-term custody order that a judge can grant under limited emergency circumstances, without hearing from the other party. The grounds for granting emergency custody include situations in which a child is at a substantial risk of bodily injury, sexual abuse, or removal from North Carolina for the purpose of avoiding the authority of the North Carolina courts. Law enforcement can assist in recovering a child with an emergency custody order. If an emergency custody order is granted, a hearing must be scheduled so that both parties have the opportunity to be heard. You should consider hiring an attorney if you need to file for emergency custody, because the process is complex.

Filing for Custody

Who can file for child custody or visitation?

Any parent can file for custody, whether the parents are separated, divorced or never married. Third parties, such as grandparents, relatives, or others who have cared for the child, can file for custody or visitation under some circumstances. To obtain custody, non-parents must prove that the parents are either unfit to care for the child or have not acted in accordance with their rights as parents, for instance, by abandoning the child to be raised by a non-parent. Grandparents may also be awarded visitation in some circumstances when there is a custody case between the parents. Non-relatives requesting custody must prove that they have a substantial relationship with the child. 

How do I file for custody?

To ask a court for a child custody order, you must file a complaint. Your lawyer can file the complaint for you, or if you do not have a lawyer, you can file a complaint yourself.

What resources can help me file for custody without a lawyer?

You can find information about the process and child custody paperwork online here. Legal Aid of North Carolina conducts clinics across the state to help participants file for child custody or visitation. You can sign up online here. North Carolina Central University School of Law provides custody forms and one-on-one appointments to assist clients in filing for custody. You can see more information here.

Where should I file my custody case?

Custody cases must be filed in the child’s “home state,” which is the state where the child has lived for the six months before the case is filed. If you had a previous custody case about the same child in a different state, you generally must return to that state to change your custody order as long as one of the parties still lives there.

Within North Carolina, you may file a custody case in the county in which any of the parties lives.

What happens when I file for custody?

After you file your case, you must ensure that the summons and complaint are served on the other parent, generally either by the sheriff or through certified mail. A judge can only make decisions in your case after the other parent has been served with the summons and complaint.

Generally, before a judge can hear your case, it will be sent to the Custody Mediation Program. See the Custody Mediation Help Topic for more details about custody mediation. If you and the other party are unable to agree on a custody and visitation plan in mediation, a judge can hear your case to make a decision for you. In most cases, a hearing will be scheduled only if one of the parties requests it.

I went to court for custody in the past, but the situation has changed. Can I file a new case?

If a judge signed a custody order in your earlier case, you will need to file to modify that order rather than filing a new case. In general, your Motion to Modify should be filed in the court that made the original decision. In some situations, if your previous case was dismissed, you can file a new custody case. See below for more information on modification.

Do I need an attorney for my child custody case?

You are not required to hire an attorney, but child custody cases are often factually complicated and require the presentation of witnesses and documents. If you represent yourself in court, you will be held to the same rules of evidence and procedure as a licensed attorney. Court officials, such as judges and clerks of court, cannot provide you with legal advice about your rights and obligations or the likely outcome of your case based on your family’s circumstances. See the Find an Attorney Help Topic for more information about finding an attorney to represent you.

Can I get a court-appointed attorney for my custody case?

No. The court does not appoint attorneys to represent parties in child custody cases.

Court Process

Someone has filed a case for custody or visitation against me. What do I do?

If you are able to do so, you should discuss the case with an attorney as soon as possible. You must respond to the lawsuit by filing an Answer within 30 days after you are served with the summons and complaint. You should also attend all mediation and court dates. You will not be arrested for failing to appear in court for your custody case. However, if you do not attend mediation or hearings, you will lose your opportunity to tell the judge your side of the story and request custody or visitation rights.

What is custody mediation?

Custody mediation is a conversation between the parents assisted by a professional mediator. The mediator works with the parents, without attorneys in the room, to come to an agreement about child custody, if possible. You can learn more about mediation in the Custody Mediation Help Topic.

Who will decide my custody case?

If you and the other parent are not able to agree on a custody order in mediation, a judge will decide your case after a trial in which you both have the opportunity to testify and call witnesses. If your judicial district has a family court program, you may have one family court judge assigned to decide all matters in your case. If not, any district court judge can hear your case.

What will the judge consider in deciding my case?

Judges decide child custody based on “the best interests of the child.” This decision can include many factors, such as the parents’ living arrangements, each parent’s ability to care for the child, the child’s relationship with each parent, and any other factors affecting the welfare of the child. While fairness to the parents is important, this is secondary to the child’s welfare. A party’s shortcomings as a spouse or relationship partner will generally only carry substantial weight if they also impact the party’s parenting abilities. An attorney can advise you on the most relevant factors in your specific case.

Can my child talk to the judge about what he or she wants?

There are two situations in which a parent may bring a child to testify in court, and the requirements are slightly different. There is no age limit preventing parents from bringing young children to testify, but this can affect the judge’s view of the parent’s judgment, depending on the age of the child and other circumstances.

  • Children can testify as witnesses to specific incidents. Before taking testimony from a child, the judge must determine that the child understands the importance of telling the truth.
  • Children can speak to the judge about their preferences. In this case, the judge must determine that the child understands the importance of telling the truth and that the child has reached the “age of discretion,” meaning that he or she has sufficient maturity and good judgment. Judges often consider teenagers’ preferences about where they want to live, but are not required to order what the teenager wants.

Many judges prefer to have children wait outside the courtroom rather than observing the trial. Many judges will speak to children “in chambers,” meaning in a separate room without the parents present, rather than having the child testify in the courtroom.

What is the difference between temporary and permanent custody orders?

Judges may enter either temporary or permanent custody orders. A temporary custody order will be in effect until the judge holds a new trial to make a decision about modifying the temporary order or entering a permanent order. Temporary custody orders are legally binding, but easier to change than permanent orders. If you are unhappy with a temporary custody order, you can schedule your case for a review of the temporary order or for a permanent custody trial. Temporary custody orders can become permanent if neither party requests another hearing for a long period of time. To change a permanent custody order, you must show that there has been a substantial change in circumstances affecting the child since the permanent order was entered.

I am currently in the military. What are my rights?

Specific laws govern the rights of active duty members of the military. If you are unable to attend court due to your active-duty status, you can request that the court case be put “on hold” until you return. You can find more information here

Enforcement and Modification

The other parent has violated our custody order. What can I do?

You can file a Motion for Order to Show Cause or Motion for Contempt to ask the judge to hold the other parent in contempt of court for violating the order. If the judge finds that the other parent violated the order, the judge will decide the appropriate penalty. Penalties for contempt of court can include a verbal reprimand, a fine, jail time, or requiring the party in contempt to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees. 

I have a custody order and want to change it. What can I do?

If you have a temporary custody order, you can schedule another hearing in your case without the need to file additional motions, though filing a motion may be helpful in some cases. If you have a permanent custody order, you must file a Motion to Modify. When you file a Motion to Modify, you must allege in your motion and prove in court that there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the original order was entered, and that those changes are affecting the child in a way that requires the old order to be changed to serve the child’s best interests.

I have a custody order from another state but now live in North Carolina. What do I need to do?

Custody orders from other states are valid in North Carolina. In general, even if you and/or the child has moved from another state to North Carolina, a judge in the original state will continue to make decisions in your case as long as one of the parties still lives there. If everyone has left the original state, you can ask the North Carolina courts to take over your case. If you want a North Carolina judge to enforce or change your out-of-state order, you must begin by registering the order in North Carolina. You can find the petition to register a custody order from another state or country here.

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