What You Need To Know About North Carolina Custody Laws

2 kids walking down a path

North Carolina custody laws aren’t always easy to understand. In most cases, there is no hard and fast rule; the judge simply makes a ruling that is in the best interest of the child. This sounds good in theory, because of course we all want what is best for the child.

However, a judge doesn’t really know your family or the situation. That’s why it is so important to have an experienced custody lawyer on your side. Here at Morgenstern & Associates, we help parents in the Greensboro area get the best possible outcome for their child custody case.

Basic North Carolina Custody Laws

We can’t give specific advice online for custody cases because so much boils down to “it depends.” Every situation is so different. That said, here are a few very basic North Carolina laws and guidelines regarding custody.

  1. There are two forms of custody – physical and legal. Physical custody refers to where a child lives and which parent takes responsibility for their day-to-day needs. Legal custody refers to which parent makes decisions for the child including religion, education, and healthcare decisions.
  2. North Carolina is not a “mother” or “father” state. The mother does have primarily custodial rights after birth, but the biological father can establish their rights and gain custody. This is true, even if there is not a father listed on the birth certificate, though it may require a paternity test.
  3. You are not required to get a custody order from the court. If you both agree, you can simply enter into an agreement with the child’s other parent. You don’t even need an official order from the court if a non-parent will be providing care for the child, as long as everyone agrees. However, in some cases, third parties such as schools and doctors will require a custody order or agreement before allowing a non-parent to make decisions for the child.
  4. An “ex parte order” is an emergency custody order. This is a temporary custody order that a judge grants without a hearing due to risk to the child or if a parent leaves the state with the intent to avoid the jurisdiction of the North Carolina courts. In this case, the hearing comes after the emergency custody order.
  5. Both parents can file for custody at any time. This doesn’t have to happen before your divorce is finalized. Other relatives and caregivers such as grandparents can also file for custody or visitation in specific situations, if they have a substantial relationship with the child or can show that the parents are unfit.

You can read about more child custody laws in North Carolina here.

How a Judge Determines Custody

Before a judge hears your case, you and the other parent will typically need to go through a Custody Mediation Program. However, if you can’t agree on custody and visitation, a judge will hear your case.

The general rule is that the judge will determine custody based on what is best for the child. Some things they will consider can include:

  • The parents’ living arrangements and locations
  • Parenting abilities of both parents
  • Where the child wants to live (if they are mature enough to testify)

Keep in mind that your “ability to parent” can mean that the judge looks at many different things, and your partner can call upon friends and family members to testify against you. During a messy divorce, it can feel good to blow off steam with a friend, but the other parent can use this against you in a custody case, especially if your behavior included activities such as drinking and drug use. Judges do not consider if you were a good partner in a marriage (such as faithfulness), but can consider anything regarding your parenting abilities.

What to Expect During Custody Mediation

In most cases, you and the other parent must both attend custody mediation before you can get a hearing. The judge only waives this requirement in specific cases, such as abuse, addiction, or severe psychiatric or psychological problems.

At mediation, you’ll start by attending an orientation class. Then, a mediator will oversee a session where you and the other parent will spend up to two hours discussing custody and attempting to come to an agreement. If you come to an agreement, the mediator will prepare a written agreement, which all parties and a judge will sign.

During your mediation session, you’ll discuss custody, but you do not need to bring any kind of evidence. The mediator’s job is not to judge who is right or wrong. They simply guide the conversation. The mediator also will not present information to a judge if you cannot make a decision during the session. The conversation is private, unless there is a threat of violence or the mediator suspects child abuse that has been previously unreported.

If you can’t agree, a judge will hear your case. A judge will also determine child support. This is not something you’ll decide during mediation.

Frequently Asked Questions about North Carolina Custody Laws

We would love to answer your specific questions about child custody. Our experienced family lawyers have worked on a wide range of custody cases. Here are some FAQs about North Carolina custody laws to help you get started:

Where do I file?

We serve all of Greensboro and the surrounding area, including High Point, Burlington, Summerfield, and more. You must file for custody in the county where the child or parent lives in most cases. This commonly means we’ll file in Guilford County, but it might mean we file elsewhere in North Carolina. If you had a previous custody order, we’ll typically file a Motion to Modify with the same court. Every situation is different, so we recommend contacting us to learn more about your specific case.

Do I need a custody attorney to file?

You don’t legally need a custody attorney if you are seeking custody. However, North Carolina custody laws and procedures are not always easy to navigate on your own. It’s better to have experienced family lawyers on your side than to try to do it yourself and miss your opportunity at custody.

Can you guarantee custody?

No lawyer can guarantee a specific outcome in court. However, we can set up a consultation with you to learn more about your case and give you our opinion about what is most likely to happen. We give you advice for the best possible outcome, but are also always realistic with our clients about what is likely to happen in court.

Click here to contact us if you’d like to learn more about setting up a custody consultation. Our team at Morgenstern & Associates is here to help!

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