Understanding NC Child Custody Laws

  1. Child Custody
  2. Understanding NC Child Custody Laws
Understanding NC Child Custody Laws

When a couple goes through a divorce, there can be many challenging issues to navigate. One of those is child custody. If children are involved in a relationship, the divorce affects more than just the two partners involved.

Understanding how the laws work in your state is important as you start to navigate this new journey. While a qualified and experienced child custody lawyer can guide you through these next steps, it’s important to be informed.

Today, we’re taking a closer look at NC child custody laws and sharing some of the most common points you need to know.

What Is Child Custody?

Before we dive into the specific child custody and divorce laws in North Carolina, let’s start with a brief overview. What does it mean to have child custody in the first place?

Put simply, custody gives a parent or guardian the authority to make major life decisions about a child (legal custody). It also permits you to keep the child in your care (physical custody). Physical custody can be awarded on a full-time or part-time basis.

Any parent can file for custody, including those who are:

  • Separated
  • Divorced
  • Never married

In addition, some circumstances will require third parties, such as grandparents or other relatives, to file for custody or visitation rights.


There is also a secondary type of custody called visitation. This allows a parent to visit a child at specific times and usually under certain conditions, as determined by a court order. If the time you’re allowed to spend with your child is fairly limited, it will normally be referred to as visitation, not custody.

Sole Custody vs. Joint Custody

Under NC law, both parents can share legal and physical custody. This is called joint custody, and it means the child will typically split their time between the two parents. While it can be an even split, it doesn’t have to be.

In some situations, the court will grant primary physical custody to only one parent. In that case, the child will live with that parent for the majority of the time. The other parent will have secondary physical custody, and the child will visit on a pre-determined basis, such as every other weekend.

Alternatively, one parent can individually hold all of those rights, which is called sole custody. This means that while the child might occasionally visit the other parent, they live full-time with one parent only.

If a parent is awarded sole legal custody, this means that they can make decisions about the child’s life without getting consent from the other parent. Under the terms of joint custody, they must consult with each other and make those decisions together.

Examples of major life decisions may include:

  • Whether a child will go to a public school or a private school
  • Whether a child will undergo a major medical procedure
  • Whether a child will participate in religious practices
  • Whether a child will participate in extracurricular activities

As you might imagine, these decisions don’t always lead to a harmonious outcome. If both parents can’t reach an agreement, the court can intervene to help make a final decision.

Why Do I Need a Custody Order?

North Carolina law does not require divorcing couples to pursue a custody order. However, it’s usually in your best interest to do so. This is especially the case if you and your ex-partner do not see eye-to-eye on a major aspect of your child’s care.

Without a legal custody order in place, both legal parents assume equal rights to the child. By “legal parent” we mean anyone who is officially recognized as a parent on any of the following documents:

  • The child’s birth certificate
  • An affidavit of parentage
  • A court order (e.g. a child support or adoption order)

The Rights of Non-Parents

For divorcing parents, a custody order is a valuable agreement. It gives structure and order to a child’s care and ensures their best interests are always taken care of.

Other individuals who may seek a custody order include non-parents.

A non-parent is someone who is not legally authorized to act as a child’s parent but is stepping in to provide temporary care (e.g. a grandparent). In this case, the non-parent may not need a custody agreement as long as both legal parents agree on the terms. However, some entities, such as schools and healthcare providers, may require a custody order before allowing non-parents to make decisions for a child.

Child Support and Custody Rights

In North Carolina, parents will not lose their custody rights if they fail to pay child support. Instead, these agreements are based on the child’s best interest alone.

That said, while refusing to pay child support might not directly cost you your rights, the court may consider this inaction when analyzing your ability and willingness to act in the child’s best interest.

Filing for Custody

The first step toward asking a court for a child custody order in NC is to file a formal complaint. If you do not have a lawyer, you can file the complaint yourself. However, this can be a complicated process, especially if you’re in the throes of an emotional divorce.

A lawyer can file the complaint for you, making sure all of the right information is included and it’s delivered on time. Note that you must file your custody case in the child’s home state, where they lived for at least six months before the process was initiated.

More locally speaking, you’ll need to file the case in the county where the child resides or is physically present. Or, you can file it in a county where at least one parent resides.

Custody Order Violations

Once a custody order is established, there’s no guarantee that all parties will hold up their end of the deal. If one parent violates the order, your first step is to file a Motion for Order to Show Cause or a Motion for Contempt.

With each of these documents, you’re asking the judge to find the other parent in contempt of court due to their violation of the order. The judge will review your case and make a decision on whether the violation occurred or not. Then, they will enforce a penalty that they deem appropriate.

Examples of penalties for violating a custody order can include:

  • Monetary fines
  • Verbal Reprimands
  • Jail time

The judge may also require the party in concept to pay the attorney fees for the other parent. This is why it’s important to understand the terms of your agreement to ensure you can maintain compliance.

Learn More About NC Child Custody Laws

When you’re in the middle of a divorce, legalities might be the last thing on your mind. This is an emotional and stressful time, especially if you and your ex shared children together.

The more you know about NC child custody laws, the easier this process will be. Yet, you don’t have to do everything on your own. At New Direction Family Law, our team of divorce and family law attorneys is here to help you move forward in confidence.

Contact us today to learn more about our services and schedule a consultation.

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