While it is perhaps most common for child custody to come up in the process of going through a divorce, that is by no means the only time when custody has to be decided. Often, custody has to be revisited when one parent moves or their behavior changes (making it dangerous for the child or children to remain in their custody). The child may also reach an age where they are able to decide whom they want to live with and what situation works best for them.
Whether you are deciding child custody for the first time as you go through your divorce or are coming back to the issue because of some change, you need to know how child custody works in your state.
This article is intended to help you sort through some of the complexities of child custody in North Carolina so you know what is ahead and how to best navigate the system for your children.
Types of Custody
Before getting into what a custody decision looks like, it’s important to highlight just how custody can be arranged. In North Carolina, custody arrangements can look very different from family to family.
Custody includes two elements: the physical custody of the child and the legal custody of the child. These often, but do not always, overlap. These two types of custody can be shared by both parents (joint), be held by only one parent (sole), or else be given to a third party (if neither parent is seen as capable of taking care of the child).
When there is joint legal custody of a child, both parents can make important decisions for the child. This means either parent can decide on medical treatments, education, or other vital life choices. This often, but again not always, goes with joint physical custody, which means the child lives at different times with both parents. An arrangement can be made for joint legal custody that does not include joint physical custody.
In the case of sole legal custody, only one parent can make the important decisions for the child. Sole physical custody means the child only lives with one parent. Sometimes this is preferred, even in the event of good relations between all parties, in order to provide stability for the child.
If one parent has sole physical custody, the other parent will most likely (except in extreme cases) be granted some form of visitation rights. These can be unsupervised or supervised. An unsupervised visit allows the parent without physical custody to leave the home and take the child on outings or to their own home. There’s a lot of freedom, with limitations set beforehand. Supervised visits require another adult to be present for all interactions with the child. This can be someone of the parent’s choice or not, depending on the circumstances.
Contested or Uncontested Custody
Custody can be worked out privately by both parents. If an agreement is reached, the issue is uncontested and won’t involve a judge (barring very extreme circumstances). However, if both parents cannot reach an agreement on custody, the issue is contested and will be decided by a judge.
How Custody Is Determined
In North Carolina, the child’s interests always come first. The state does not decide custody based on the gender of the parent. It also doesn’t consider whether the parent is a blood-relative or a relative by adoption.
Instead, what a judge considers are a series of factors that are meant to show where the child will be happiest, healthiest, and safest. To begin with, the risk of domestic abuse or substance abuse will weigh heavily on the decision of the court.
If such abuse is not present, the judge will consider whether both parents can provide a stable home that is consistently safe and pleasant for the child. This includes basics like having a regular supply of food, consistent shelter in a safe area, access to clothes and medicine, but also includes where the child feels comfortable and happy.
Where the child has been living and with whom will also be important to the judge’s decision. Keeping the child in the home, community, and school they know is important, so parents that have not been in the family home, have moved far away, or are often away would be at a disadvantage.
The judge may also consider the child’s age and which parent has demonstrated in the past the characteristics of the primary caregiver.
If the child is old enough to voice an opinion, their preferences will also be considered by the judge.
How to Modify Child Custody in North Carolina
The goal of custody arrangements in North Carolina is to resolve the issue permanently to the greatest satisfaction possible for all parties. Sometimes, however, circumstances change, requiring changes to be made to a custody agreement. These can be positive (such as a parent returning to the area and being able to take joint-custody of the child) or negative (a parent becoming unfit to care for the child).
Modifications can be agreed by both parents and might be relatively easy to put in place (although they likely will only be made if the change is significant). In the event only one parent wishes to make a modification, a judge will again become involved to find the best solution. A third-party can also petition for a modification.
Do I Need a Child Custody Lawyer?
Where your child lives and who has control of the most important decisions in their lives is perhaps the most important decision that will be made in the process of a divorce. The laws surrounding divorce and child custody in North Carolina are extensive and complex, so it is always best to hire an experienced attorney to help you bring the best case for you and your child before the judge. This remains true in the case of modification, whether you are pursuing it for yourself, or the child’s other parent wishes to change the agreement.