If your marriage or long-term relationship is ending, your foremost concern is the well-being of your children. How will they handle the separation? Where will they live, and with whom? When it comes to child custody, the court makes a determination based on the child’s best interest with the goal of maintaining a healthy relationship with both parents.

Couples who are separating will ideally agree on a custody parenting plan that splits time with both parents fairly. When you and your former partner are unable to agree, however, you can ask the court to make a custody determination.

What types of custody does North Carolina recognize?

The state distinguishes between legal and physical custody. Legal custody is the right to make important decisions that affect the child’s health, education, religious upbringing and other key areas. Parents usually share legal custody.

The child lives with the parent who has physical custody. Typically, one parent receives physical custody and the other receives visitation, although the courts may make joint custody arrangements.

What factors do judges use to determine custody?

In applying the so-called “best interest of the child standard,” the judge will consider the following:

  • Where the child currently lives
  • His or her health and safety
  • The existing relationship with each parent
  • Any history of domestic violence, abuse or neglect
  • Each parent’s ability to establish a stable home and provide care for the child

Family courts generally do not consider factors that contributed to the end of the marriage in the custody decision. However, these factors will be considered when they affect the person’s ability to effectively and safely parent.

How do I file for custody?

You must file a court complaint in the county where the child primarily resides. You can do this independently or with the help of a family law attorney.

Before filing for child custody through the North Carolina family court system, you can attempt to make a parenting agreement with the other parent that the court will approve and honor. Mediation can be helpful if you and your former partner are unable to come to terms on this issue.