Child Custody Laws for North Carolina

By Bernadette A. Safrath

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Custody includes both physical custody, the right to provide a home for a child, and legal custody, the right to make decisions regarding a child's day-to-day care. In North Carolina, parents have an equal right to custody regardless of gender. The state's custody laws set forth the procedure a court must use when issuing or modifying a custody order.

Sole Vs. Joint Custody

When a North Carolina court awards one parent sole custody, that parent has primary physical possession of the child and is the only one authorized to make decisions regarding the child's well being, which includes education, child care, medical treatment, religion and extracurricular activities. A court will award parents joint custody -- meaning that parents will share the decision-making authority and must make all decisions together -- only if they can demonstrate an ability to communicate and cooperate. However, joint custody does not necessarily mean that the child will live with each parent for an equal amount of time. The court can order shared physical custody, if the parents' residences are close enough that such an arrangement is convenient. Otherwise, one parent will be designated the primary custodian and the other parent will enjoy liberal visitation to ensure that a continuous, meaningful relationship is maintained.

Best Interests of the Child

North Carolina uses the "best interests of the child" standard when deciding custody. These guidelines make sure a child's welfare is considered above all else. Factors considered include the child's age, which parent is the primary caregiver, each parent's work schedule and each parent's relationship with the child. Factors that may negatively affect a parent's chance at custody are whether either parent might interfere in the child's relationship with the other parent and whether there is a history of domestic violence or child abuse. The court may ask for the child's preference at its discretion, if the court believes the child is mature enough to make a choice.


A custody decision is never permanent. Either parent can petition a North Carolina court for modification. The court will modify custody if the parent can establish that a "substantial change in circumstances" has occurred. A significant change in the custodial parent's work schedule is one example of a change warranting modification, especially if the new schedule makes that parent less available for the child. Other examples include a parent's serious injury or illness, leaving the parent unable to adequately care for the child; or a significant change in lifestyle, including promiscuity, alcohol abuse or drug abuse, especially when it takes place in the child's presence.


If the parent with primary physical custody wants to relocate, especially if relocation will be out of state, that parent must petition a North Carolina court for permission. This is because the increased distance between the parents will create a hardship for the non-custodial parent to continue frequent visitation. The court will consider several factors in determining if relocation is appropriate. These factors include the reason for the move, any reasons the non-custodial parent opposes relocation, and the effect relocation will have on visitation. Additionally, the court must look at any positive and negative effects the move may have on the child's life. The court will either permit relocation and adjust the visitation schedule accordingly or modify the custody order, naming the other parent as primary custodian.