North Carolina Laws on Primary Custody and Average Child Support

By Elizabeth Rayne, J.D.

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While a divorce is a momentous change in the life of both parents and their children, North Carolina courts attempt to maintain some continuity when awarding child support. Ideally, a child support award provides children with the same support and lifestyle they had before their parents separated. With this in mind, courts will consider the income of each parent as well as which parent has primary custody of the children. The support payment is based not only on the ability of each parent to pay support, but also the needs of the children.

Custody Overview

North Carolina law distinguishes between physical and legal custody. Physical custody refers to where the child lives on a day-to-day basis. Legal custody refers to which parent makes major decisions for the child, such as issues regarding health care, education or religion. The court may award joint physical or legal custody, allowing the parents to share the responsibilities for taking care of or making decisions for the child. The court may also award sole legal or physical custody to one parent and award visitation to the parent who does not have physical custody. Further, even where parents have joint physical custody, one parent may have primary custody, meaning she has physical custody for the majority of the time.

Custody Determinations

Like other states, North Carolina courts make custody determinations based on what is in the best interest of the child. However, parents have the option to negotiate a parenting agreement instead of letting the court make the determination. During a custody hearing, the court has discretion to hear any relevant evidence that will demonstrate why it is in the child's best interest for either parent to have custody. For example, the court may consider the education and health needs of the child, each parent's ability to take care of the child, the employment history of each parent, any existing mental health issues and any other other relevant factors.

Sole Custody and Child Support

In determining child support obligations, North Carolina takes the custody arrangement into consideration. Although the court may vary the support obligation based on the unique situation of a particular case, the calculation begins with completing a child support worksheet. Which worksheet you use will depend on the custody arrangement. The parent who has sole or primary custody typically receives support from the other parent, but because custody is only one factor in the support calculation, support from the noncustodial parent is not automatic. For purposes of calculating child support, the law considers a parent to have primary physical custody when the child lives with the parent for at least 243 nights a year.

Child Support Determination

North Carolina courts calculate child support by determining what the child would receive if the parents were still together. To this end, the court will consider the income of both parents, along with health insurance premiums and childcare costs when a parent is working or looking for employment. The court may also take into account extraordinary expenses, such as educational expenses for special or private schooling, medical expenses or transportation between the parents' homes. The gross income of each parent, number of children, pre-existing child support responsibilities, childcare costs, health care costs, and extraordinary expenses are entered into the appropriate worksheet to determine the child support amount, which may be adjusted as the court deems appropriate.