Child Custody & Visitation
North Carolina courts determine child custody according to the best interest of the child. And parental decision-making authority and visitation rights are specified in child custody agreements or orders.
At Rice Law, we believe that children should be shielded from parental conflict and encourage parents involved in a custody dispute to acknowlege and follow the Child’s Bill of Rights. The Child’s Bill of Rights describes the rights that children who are the subject of a custody dispute should be afforded by both parents.
Child custody agreements
Child custody agreements, sometimes part of a Separation Agreement & Property Settlement (SAPS) or Parenting Agreement, consider what’s best for the child while addressing practical, financial, and emotional issues. These agreements establish sole vs. joint custody, visitation, and other details. Most child custody cases are settled by a voluntary agreement between the parents, with an attorney writing the agreement. It is generally best for parents to mutually decide the custodial arrangement for their child with the input of an attorney who is familiar with child custody issues. We generally recommend that such agreements are reduced to writing in a court order rather than through a SAPS or Parenting Plan. We prefer court orders because they are more easily enforcible and in the event of a parent-kidnapping, the custodial parent can more easily and more quickly obtain assistance of law enforcement to help with the return of the child.
Sole vs. joint custody
Sole custody generally means that the parent who has possession has most or all of the decision-making authority, while joint custody means that each parent has some input. The written custody document may state the actual meaning of each with regard to decisions made on behalf of the child. In North Carolina, sole custody is generally not awarded to one parent unless the other parent is unfit to parent.
Child visitation rights
North Carolina courts typically refer to custody as primary or secondary where, depending on the circumstances, both parents are entitled to visitation with the child. However, a judge can order that there be no visitation or supervised visitation when there are allegations of physical, sexual, drug, or child abuse. A parent may not refuse visitation simply because the non-custodial parent does not pay child support.
Child custody disputes in court
North Carolina courts award custody to the person who “will, in the opinion of the judge, best promote the interest and welfare of the child.” This context gives the judge flexibility to consider and weigh all factors that might affect the child physically, mentally, emotionally, morally, and spiritually.
Though each judge weights factors differently, all consider primary factors, such as the age of the child, the home environment, presence of siblings, relocation of the children, the preference of the child (generally age 10 and up), legal complaints filed against either parent, each parent’s competency (e.g., stability, time available to spend with the child, child neglect or abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, non-marital sexual relationships, and more), the parent’s willingness to keep the other parent involved in the child’s life (including efforts to undermine the other parent), and religion.
By allowing the court to determine child custody, each parent’s history will be brought to light and used to predict future behavior. However, once a court order has been entered regarding the custody of the child, this becomes a “baseline” and the court’s rarely allow evidence to be introduced in future hearings that occured before the baseline.
Grandparents’ visitation & child custody rights
A grandparent may intervene in an ongoing child custody dispute to obtain visitation rights. A grandparent may also obtain custody of their grandchild under certain circumstances. This topic is discussed in more detail in the article, Grandparents’ Visitation & Child Custody Rights in North Carolina.