In North Carolina, a large percentage of child custody cases are decided outside of a courtroom with a voluntary agreement.  With a voluntary agreement, parents can make a joint decision about custody of their children instead of having a judge decide.  Whenever you are dealing with child custody, you need to consider a multitude of factors, including emotional, financial, and practical issues.  To start thinking about some of the issues involved with child custody, review the following questions and answers:

Why does my agreement need to be a written document?

The purpose of a separation agreement is to clearly define the child custody agreement between the parents.  If the agreement outlining custody and visitation is not written, the arrangements could be changed by one parent and the other parent would have no documentation to enforce the custody agreement.

What happens if we are not able to agree?

It is strongly encouraged for the parents to agree to a custody arrangement for their child.  But when parents are unable to agree, the court will make the decision about custody.  When deciding custody, the judge looks at the age of child, how much time each parent is able to spend with their child, stability, child abuse and child neglect history, problems with drugs and alcohol, religious affiliation, etc.  Basically, most aspects of your life will be examined and mistakes you may have made in the past can be used against you to predict how you will behave in the future.

What factors does the judge consider when making a decision?

When making custody decisions, the judge will base the decision on what is in the child’s best interest.  The judge will weigh all the evidence presented in court and then award custody to the parent they feel is able to best look out for the child’s best interest and welfare.

Is my child able to decide who they want to live with?

The short answer to this question is no.  The court will take your child’s wishes into consideration but the judge also considers other determining factors.  The judge will most likely give more weight to your child’s wishes as your child gets older.  The most important factor for the judge will always be what is in your child’s best interest.

What is the difference between joint custody and sole custody?

When one parent has most or all of the authority to make decisions in regard to the child, they have what is considered sole custody.  When both parents have a say in decisions regarding the child, they have what is considered joint custody.  But, in most court orders, joint custody and sole custody can mean whatever the parties want them to mean.  The terms will be defined in the custody document in regard to which parent has the decision-making authority.

What about child support and shared custody?

In North Carolina, having shared custody of a child does not stop child support.  Both parents are responsible for providing financially for their child.  Child support payments will always be required, except in the rare cases where both parents spend the exact same amount of time with the child and both parents make the same income.

Is visitation dependent upon payment of child support?

You are not allowed to refuse to allow your child to visit their other parent based on payment of child support. Visitation and child support are two separate issues that should remain separate.  Refusing visitation can be very difficult on your child.

If I date, can that be used against me in court?

There is nothing stopping you from dating another individual.  But it is important to remember that your ex could possibly use any new relationships you have against you in custody court.  The North Carolina Court of Appeals typically rejects arguments in regard to not having custody because you are dating.  But your ex could try to make an argument that dating is causing you to neglect your child or spend less time with them, possibly weakening your case for custody.

What witnesses do I bring if we go to court?

The most helpful witnesses for court are people who see you interact with your child.  You will want to bring people who have seen you and your child together recently, those people who have seen you and your child on a regular basis over time, and those people who you talk to about your child.  Some examples of people you would want to consider as witnesses are: relatives, your child’s teachers, pediatricians, daycare providers, your neighbors, and close friends.

What if I haven’t been the best parent up to this point?

Every day is a new opportunity to become a better parent to your child.  Ideally, you would decrease undesirable behavior and increase positive behaviors in regard to your child.  Concrete examples would include completing a parenting class, engaging in therapy services or family therapy, or participating in any other parent-child activities.