Filing for Custody in North Carolina: 4 Steps

Before you open a case, consider your options for deciding custody:

If you choose to settle or litigate without an attorney, follow the steps below to file for custody. If you have an attorney or use an alternative dispute resolution method, the person you hire will likely file for you.

Kind in mind that parents must separate for at least 12 months before filing for divorce, even in cases involving domestic violence.

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Step 1: Complete forms

To begin, you'll need to complete three forms:

You can request custody by filing for divorce, legal separation, paternity, domestic violence protective orders (restraining orders) or just custody. You may need to complete additional forms for the noncustody issues in your divorce, separation, paternity or domestic violence case.

Make sure the county you'll file in — either where you live or where your child lives — is listed properly on your forms. You can cross out a county name and write in your county, if necessary.

On the Domestic Civil Action Cover Sheet, check "complaint" as the type of pleading. For claims for relief, check "custody" and "visitation," as well as any others that apply to you.

Court employees can't help you fill out forms. To make sure yours are completed properly, get free help from legal aid clinics or consult with a lawyer.

Finally, make two copies of each form.

Step 2: Open your case

Head to the district court in the county you listed on your forms.

You'll need to pay the court clerk $150 to open your case. If you can't afford it, submit a Petition to Proceed as an Indigent to ask the court to waive the charges.

When the clerk gives you a file number, write it on your forms from Step 1 (the originals as well as the copies) and hand them all to the clerk. The clerk will return to you the documents you need for the next step.

You'll receive your hearing date in the mail.

Step 3: Have the other parent served

You must have the other parent served a copy of the custody complaint and a summons to appear in court. You'll need to submit a proof of service form to the court before your case can continue.

You have several options for serving, but you cannot simply hand the papers to the other parent.

You can serve by registered mail and request a return receipt. First, sign an Affidavit of Service in front of a notary.

You can also hire the sheriff's office to serve the papers for $30.

If the sheriff's office can't do it for you — due to lack of availability, inability to locate the other parent, conflict of interest, etc. — you may hire a private process server.

Lastly, if you don't know where the other parent lives, the court may let you post a weekly notice in a newspaper. This is only used when all other options for locating the parent have been exhausted.

Step 4: Wait for the other parent to respond

The other parent has 30 days to file a response with the court, unless the judge grants them an extension. If they don't respond on time, the judge will often rule in your favor.

When the parent files their response, they must serve you with a copy. If it includes counterclaims or new claims, you have to reply within 30 days.

Preparing for what comes next

The next step in the court process depends on your circumstances. Most parents go to mediation, unless they reach settlement first.

No matter what's next for you, take advantage of technology to be fully prepared.

The Custody X Change online app offers custom custody calendars, parent-to-parent messaging, an expense tracker and more.

You can use the app in many ways in North Carolina: to put together proposals for the other parent, negotiate, prepare settlement paperwork or organize evidence.

Be prepared for every step of your case with Custody X Change.

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