North Carolina custody law


  • General
  • Who is entitled to custody of children?
  • What are the procedures in custody cases?
  • Is custody ever permanent?
  • What are visitation rights?
  • Who is responsible for support of children?
  • Is non-support a crime?
  • Can the amount of support ordered by the Court be changed?
  • When a parent moves out of the state
  • Child support after 18
  • How can I locate an attorney?

1. General

Problems arise in the area of child custody, visitation rights and support generally because of the separation or divorce of the parents.

Children often imagine that they are the cause of their parents’ divorce. It is therefore important that you make it clear to your children that they are not the cause of the separation. Your children need to know that they are loved by both parents. You can ensure this by being cooperative about visitation rights and other aspects of custody and by being careful not to criticize the behavior or character of the other parent.

Court actions involving children can be especially damaging to everyone concerned, and in matters of custody, parents should seek to place the welfare of the child above all other factors as do the courts.

This article seeks to explain North Carolina laws on child custody, visitation rights and support by answering frequently asked questions about these matters.

2. Who is entitled to custody of children?

For many years, there was a presumption that all other things being equal, the mother was not just the best, but the natural parent to have custody of children when a marriage dissolves. Many people believe that courts continue to hold this belief and that a majority of judges tend to favor the mother.

The truth is, the law favors neither mother nor father, and neither should judges. The law requires the court to decide on the basis of the welfare or best interest of the child. In special circumstances, custody may be awarded to someone other than the natural mother or father. In making these difficult decisions, the courts generally consider factors such as the preference of a mature child, the health of the parents, the stability of each parent’s home and the closeness of each parent to the child.

In some instances, the courts will rule that joint custody is in the best interest of the child. Joint custody does not necessarily mean joint physical custody. Of course, parents may make their own agreements regarding the custody of the child; however, if the court becomes involved because of a dispute regarding the agreement, the court may have the authority to change the parents’ agreement if it feels a change is in the best interest of the child.

3. What are the procedures in custody cases?

An attorney assists the person trying to obtain custody by filing a civil suit in court. Frequently, the suit for custody is part of the suit for divorce between the parents. Testimony of the child may be considered. Sometimes testimony from an expert such as a child psychologist or psychiatrist will be given in court. While a custody suit is being decided, the court may enter an Order of Temporary Custody.

4. Is custody ever permanent?

No. Agreements between the parents as well as court orders are always subject to change when circumstances affecting the child’s welfare and best interests substantially change. However, the courts recognize that children need a stable environment and therefore are reluctant to change custody unless it is clearly necessary.

5. What are visitation rights?

The parent who does not have custody usually is entitled to visit the child and to have the child visit. The amount of time for such visitations depends largely upon the child’s age and practical limitations such as how far apart the parents live.

As in the case of custody rights, visitation rights may be determined by the agreement of the parties or by court order. In certain circumstances, grandparents also have the right to ask the court to set visitation times with their grandchildren. If the parent with custody refuses to allow visitation with the other parent, it may be obtained by filing a petition with the court.

6. Who is responsible for support of children?

Both the mother and father are required to contribute to the support of their child. This obligation exists even if the parents are not married. It continues after divorce and exists even when a parent has no right to custody of the child.

In determining the amount of support which a parent must provide, a court will take into account the income and earning capacity of both parents and the needs of the child. In almost all cases, the court will use the tables and computations of the North Carolina Child Support Guidelines to determine the proper amount of child support. A copy of the guidelines and worksheets can be obtained at the office of the clerk of court.

7. Is non-support a crime?

Yes. Willful neglect or refusal to provide adequate support by either parent is a criminal offense. Also, willful failure to obey a court support order may be contempt of court for which a person may be imprisoned.

8. Can the amount of support ordered by the Court be changed?

Yes. Either parent may seek a change (increase or decrease) of a support order if a substantial change in circumstances has occurred since the order was made.

9. When a parent moves out of the state

North Carolina and other states have a uniform law under which support orders from one state may be enforced and collected in the state where the supporting parent has moved. You should not remove a child from a state without consulting your lawyer.

10. Child support after 18

The court may order child support for children until they turn age 18 unless they have not completed high school at that age. In that case, child support will usually be ordered through completion of high school but not beyond age 20. The court cannot order a parent to contribute to a child’s college expenses, but parents may agree to such payments in a binding separation agreement.

11. How Can I Locate an Attorney if I Have Custody, Visitation or Support Problems?

If you have to retain a private attorney and do not know how to find one, you should contact WORLDLawDirect, or the N.C. Lawyer Referral Service which is listed in the yellow pages of your telephone directory under “Attorneys.” If you do not believe you can afford a private lawyer, you should contact the Legal Services Office in your county.

Each county also has a child support enforcement agency you may contact for help in obtaining child support.

See also…

Law Wiki: Child support help

Child Custody and Support Forum