Court Costs in North Carolina
- How did the court decide the amount of costs for my case?
The courts in North Carolina do not decide the amounts of court costs. North Carolina’s state constitution gives authority over court costs to our legislature, the General Assembly. The courts are required by law to collect the costs enacted by the General Assembly, though in some cases, the law gives court officials limited discretion to waive or reduce those costs or to allow a party to delay their payment.
- How does the court spend the costs that it collects?
Just like the General Assembly sets the amount of court costs in North Carolina, it also decides where the money goes. Although several of the statutes about court costs say that the money is “for the support of the General Court of Justice,” most of the money collected does not stay with the courts and is not reserved for the courts’ use.
Out of the total court costs for each type of case – criminal, civil, estates, and special proceedings – the General Assembly allotted $4.00 to stay with the courts to help pay for the courts’ technology. The largest share of court costs goes to the State’s General Fund, to be spent by the General Assembly however they think appropriate. The remainder is distributed to various government agencies at the State and local levels, like to county governments to fund courthouse facilities or to State and local law enforcement agencies to fund some of their operations.
Criminal And Infraction Costs (including traffic tickets)
- What costs will I have to pay if I am found not guilty?
None. Court costs are assessed against a defendant only if you are convicted of a crime or infraction (which is called a “finding of responsibility” for an infraction, but this FAQ uses “conviction” to cover both types of offense). Note that if you hired an attorney to represent you, you still will be responsible for any payment agreement you made with the attorney, but that is an obligation to the attorney, not to the court. If you were appointed an attorney by the court and are not convicted of any offense, then you will not be required to repay the State for the attorney’s services.
- Your cost chart for criminal cases lists a “Total” costs for my case. Why does the clerk say I have to pay an amount much higher than that?
The “Total” on the court costs chart is only a portion of the total monetary obligations that might be imposed in the court’s judgment upon conviction when you are convicted of a crime or infraction. Other costs in that chart also might apply, like an additional fee if you previously failed to appear during the course of the case, daily fees to reimburse the county for any days spent in jail before your case was disposed, and additional fees for conviction of certain kinds of offenses like impaired driving or having improper equipment on a motor vehicle.
In addition to court costs, the court might impose other monetary obligations in its judgment, like a fine as punishment, restitution to any victim(s) of the offense, attorney fees to pay back the State for a court-appointed lawyer, and other costs or fees associated with certain conditions of probation (like a fee for the community service program). If you dispose of your case by “waiver” - which means waiving your right to a trial and pleading guilty online, by mail, or before a clerk or magistrate - the court generally will be required by law to assess a fine from a list created by the State’s chief district court judges. The current lists of waivable offenses and the fines to be imposed.
- I didn’t even go to court -- I paid my ticket online. Why do I have to pay “court costs” when I didn’t go to court?
The law that sets the court costs requires the courts to assess and collect those costs for all convictions of criminal/infraction offenses. The costs statute does not make exceptions for cases disposed by “waiver” online or by mail, so the courts have no choice but to assess the costs in those cases.
- How can I make a payment?
Whether you are paying monetary obligations previously imposed in a court’s judgment or pleading guilty by “waiver” (as discussed in the previous two questions), your payment options are the same: online, by mail, or in person at the courthouse (or at a magistrate’s office, for in-person waivers).
Payments online can be made by credit card or debit card at the courts’ Online Services portal. If you were placed on supervised probation, you can make a partial payment of the total due. If you are pleading guilty via waiver or are making a payment for a judgment that imposed unsupervised probation (or no probation at all), then the payment must be for the full amount due; partial payments against those cases are not accepted.
MasterCard, Visa, American Express, and Discover are accepted online (plus processing fees). The name on the card and the name of the defendant may be different. The secure payment vendor, NIC, Inc., applies a portal administrative fee for all payments, and a payment confirmation email will be sent as a receipt. For online payment problems, contact NIC, Inc., at 1-888-859-6183.
Payment can be made by mail to the clerk of superior court in the county where you were charged. Do not send cash through the mail. Payments by mail should be by certified check, cashier’s check, or money order, only. Personal checks will not be accepted. Make sure the payment is made out to the “Clerk of Superior Court of [X] County,” where “[X]” is the name of the county where you were charged. If mailing a payment in order to plead guilty via waiver, be sure to sign and date the written waiver on your citation and include it with the payment, or your case will remain pending, and you still must appear for your court date.
Payments can be made at the courthouse during the clerk’s regular business hours. Payment can be made by cash, certified check, cashier’s check, money order, or credit/debit card (plus processing fees). Personal checks will not be accepted. As with payments by mail, make sure any certified/cashier’s check or money order is made out to the “Clerk of Superior Court of [X] County,” where “[X]” is the name of the county in which you are making the payment.
- When do I have to pay? Can I pay over time?
Monetary obligations from criminal and infraction cases are due at the time of the conviction, but in some cases, payment might be delayed to a later date or paid over time. If your conviction results in probation, payment usually can be made any time during the period of probation. If your probation is supervised, your probation officer will discuss with you the expected schedule of payments. For persons not placed on probation, the court might allow some additional time to pay, but that is entirely within the judge’s discretion. Note that if all monetary obligations are not paid in full at the time of conviction, the courts are required to assess an additional one-time fee of $20 to cover the State’s costs of processing future payments.
- I heard I had 40 days to pay. Is that true?
No. As explained above, monetary obligations from a criminal or infraction judgment are due as soon as the judgment is imposed, though the court might allow you additional time to pay. If the total amount is not paid within 40 days of the conviction (or within 40 days of the date allowed by the court, if a later date), then an additional fee will be added to the total because of the delay. See the next question for more detail.
- What happens if I don’t pay the total amount by the time it’s due?
It depends on the type of offense and the courts’ local practices for responding to a failure to pay (also called a “failure to comply,” or “FTC”).
For a motor vehicle (traffic) offense, an FTC likely will lead to suspension of your driver’s license (or your ability to get one, if you don’t have a license). See the Traffic Help Topic for more information about license suspension.
As noted above, if you fail to comply within 40 days of the court’s judgment, an additional “FTC fee” also will be added to your total obligation for most cases. The court also might issue an order for you to appear in court and explain (“show cause”) to the court why you should not be jailed or otherwise penalized for the failure to comply. Some courts will issue an order for your arrest to compel this appearance before the court.
Unpaid monetary obligations from a criminal or infraction judgment also might result in a civil judgment against you. See the Lawsuits Help Topic for more information about the effect of a civil judgment and how it might be collected.
Costs In Non-Criminal Cases
Court costs must be assessed for all of the types of cases filed with the courts, not just criminal cases. This includes:
- Civil cases – what most of us think of when we hear the word “lawsuit”;
- Estates – the legal management and distribution of a person’s property and assets, usually after they have died, but this type of case also applies to some living persons who need someone else to manage their affairs for them, like an adult who needs a legal guardian; and
- Special Proceedings – a special category of cases that the General Assembly has decided aren’t regular “civil” cases. Common special proceedings involve certain family or financial relationships between the parties, like adoptions and incompetency hearings for adults who might need guardians. Other special proceedings decide the disposition or ownership of land (“real property”), like foreclosures, “partitions” (a process to divide a single piece of property between its multiple owners), and some boundary disputes.
The court costs for each of these case types will vary, depending on the exact nature of the case and the court in which it will be heard. But each case type involves the up-front payment of initial filing fees to start the case. Most cases also will require the payment of additional costs during the course of the case, like a fee to have a hearing on a motion or fees to have the Sheriff serve another party with notices (also called serving “process”).
The costs and fees for civil cases, estates, and special proceedings are set out in a separate chart for each case type. The costs for a particular case will depend on the details of that specific case, so if you have questions about the costs that might apply to your situation, you should consult an attorney who can advise you.
- When do I have to pay the costs?
The court costs to file a civil case, estate, or special proceeding must be paid in advance, when the case is filed. This usually requires payment of the filing fees (shown in the court cost charts as the General Court of Justice Fee, a facilities fee, and a telecommunications fee), plus fees for the Sheriff to serve other parties with notice that the case has been filed.
Additional costs over the course of the case must be paid at the time you file the paperwork that triggers the fee. For example, the fee to have a hearing on a motion must be paid when you file a notice of that hearing with the court.
- What if I can’t afford to pay the costs when they’re due?
In some cases the clerk of superior court or the court can allow you to file your case as an “indigent,” meaning you will not be required to pay the costs in advance. If you are represented by certain legal services agencies, like Legal Aid of North Carolina, you will not be required to advance costs. (Legal Aid can represent persons in only certain types of cases. To contact Legal Aid to find out if they can represent you, see their website.)
If you are not represented by Legal Aid or a similar organization, you can petition the court to file as an indigent on the form AOC-G-106. If you do not fit into one of the categories on that form but still want to ask to file a case as an indigent, the court probably will require that you provide some information about your income and expenses before deciding whether or not to allow it. So if you do not fit into one of the categories listed on that form, contact the clerk’s office in the county where you plan to file your case, to find out what additional information you will need to provide. A directory of contact information for each county can be found here. Many counties will require that you complete this form to submit with your petition, but a few counties have local forms that they use for this purpose.
Note that even if you are allowed to file your case as an indigent, the court still must track the costs that are due, and they might be collected at a later date. For example, if you are approved to file a lawsuit as an indigent, and you win a judgment for money, the court might require that the unpaid costs be collected out of any money you recover from the other party.
In addition to the court costs for criminal/infraction cases, civil cases, estates, and special proceedings, the courts are required to collect fees for other services that the courts provide. For example, if you want photocopies of court records, the clerk must charge a per-page fee for those copies. A chart of these “miscellaneous” fees can be found here.