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Family Law

Child Custody & Visitation

The issue of child custody is filled with difficult considerations for both parents and children. These matters can be complex and emotionally charged. Parents and children commonly find themselves battling emotions of fear and anxiety while navigating the transition from a single-family unit. A parent’s desire of maintaining a full relationship with their child(ren) while juggling the uncertainties that accompany sharing time and custody with the other parent can present a myriad of challenges, especially in highly contested custody matters.  Though most custody issues are resolved outside of court through agreement, it is imperative that a compassionate and dedicated attorney help navigate the legal issues surrounding this complex and sensitive issue of divorce. Doing so will allow you to focus on preserving and facilitating healthy primary relationships for your child.

What is Child Custody?

North Carolina child custody laws govern the welfare and care of minor children who have not yet reached 18 years of age, as well as those who suffer from medical or emotional challenges. Generally, custody rights apply to the parents of a child, however, in some limited cases, these rights can apply to other interested third parties, such as grandparents. Custody and visitation rights can be determined by agreement of the parents or through the courts in an order.

Types of Child Custody

In North Carolina, child custody is typically divided into two main categories:

  • Legal Custody – This refers to the legal right to make major life decisions for a child, such as medical, educational, and religious decisions. Day-to-day decisions are made by whichever parent has the child at the time, whereas legal custody is concerned with the decisions that have long-lasting implications. Legal custody can be shared between parents or authority can be given solely to one parent.
  • Physical Custody – This refers to the actual schedule of physical care for a child. This can be shared between parents equally or one parent can have a child a majority of the time. Depending on the time split between parents this may be referred to as primary custody or secondary custody. Often secondary custody and visitation are terms used interchangeably.

How is Child Custody Decided?

If parents are able to agree on child custody sharing arrangements, the terms can be memorialized in an agreement. That agreement can be the basis for a consent order resolving a child custody court case or it can be the basis of a private custody agreement.  This private agreement can be contained in a separation agreement among other terms surrounding separation and divorce or it can be in a separate agreement, referred to as a parenting agreement.

When parents are unable to come to decisions about custody, these decisions may require court intervention. Before a court issues a custody determination, parents will be required to attend custody mediation. This provides parents with the opportunity to cooperate with one another and come to a mutual agreement. It has been shown that when parents are able to work out custody arrangements, those agreements have a higher rate of success than decisions imposed by a Judge. Additionally, when parents are able to maintain a good relationship with strong problem-solving skills, they are better equipped to deal with schedules and other changes as they occur.

How Does a Judge Determine Custody?

Some custody cases are so adversarial that it is necessary for a court to decide custody. Complex issues that often represent hurdles upon which parents are unable to compromise include relocation, significant lifestyle changes from those practiced during the parents’ relationship, and overall personality differences. These types of influences can narrow parents' ability to find compromise and agreement surrounding custody.

North Carolina custody laws provide judges with broad discretion in determining custody. A judge should determine custody based on the best interest of a child.  While some factors considered are practical, such as the schedule of the parents and child, the age of the child, and the distance between the parents’ residences, other factors that can influence a judge’s decision include:

  • The ability of the parents to care for the child,
  • The environment of each parent’s residence,
  • The needs of a child,
  • Other significant circumstances such as domestic violence or anger management issues, substance abuse issues or mental or physical health issues, and
  • Any other factor that the court finds relevant.

Can I Change My Custody Agreement?

As time progresses things change, children grow and they generally will develop a different set of needs. In such an ever-changing environment, parenting agreements can be modified by the mutual agreement of the parties using proper formalities, but child custody court orders are different. You can formally modify your child custody order only if there has been a substantial change in circumstances.  Child custody arrangements should always reflect the best interests of the child, therefore, when a substantial change justifies a modification, it becomes necessary to amend the custodial sharing schedule.

Child custody is one of the most important issues that you will deal with during a separation.

The family law attorneys at Hopper Cummings recognize that cookie cutter custody solutions are unlikely to serve most families’ and require unique solutions. We are skilled negotiators, dedicated to helping our clients create tailored solutions for the best interests of children and their family unit.  We understand the delicate nature of child custody disputes and the hurdles parents face and we can help guide you through the process with the utmost compassion and skill. Contact us today for a confidential consultation at 919-533-4115, or complete our online form to get started.


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This article and all of the content on this website are intended for information purposes only and are not to be considered legal advice or substituted for consultation with an experienced attorney. We strive to ensure the content on our site is current, informative, and based on North Carolina law and practice procedure in effect at the time of its writing and publication. Call our office to schedule a consultation at 919-533-4115, email us at, or complete a contact form on any page of this site for specific and accurate information about your unique matter.

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