Court Process: 7 Steps to Child Custody in NC

Litigating custody in North Carolina consists of seven main steps. Some may be skipped or rearranged and others added, depending on your circumstances and county.

At any point, parents can agree on a parenting plan and settle their case. Then the custody process jumps to Step 7.

Private mediation, collaborative law and other alternative methods for deciding custody follow their own processes.

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Step 1: Preparation

Do your research and consider your options. Will you request sole or joint physical custody? What about legal custody? What does your ideal visitation schedule look like?

It's a good idea to meet with a lawyer to develop a strategy. If you're unable to hire an attorney, consider doing a free or low-cost consultation for professional advice.

Step 2: Opening a case

You must open a case with your local family court to ask for custody. File the custody complaint by itself or in conjunction with a case involving divorce, legal separation, paternity or domestic violence protective orders (restraining orders). You can't file for divorce until you and the other parent have separated for at least 12 months.

After filing the custody paperwork, you must notify the other parent through a process called service. The other parent can then file their response with the court.

Possible: Emergency orders hearing

If your child is at risk of being harmed or removed from the state, you can request an accelerated hearing to decide if an emergency order is necessary.

If the judge issues an emergency order, he or she will schedule another hearing to decide whether to extend it, terminate it or replace it with a temporary order.

Step 3: Court-mandated mediation

Parents must attempt mediation before they head to trial. Judges may grant exemptions for cases involving domestic violence, child neglect, substance abuse or other special circumstances.

Courts provide mediators for free, but parents can opt to pay for private mediation. Private mediation differs in that parents can begin before they open a case, bring lawyers, and decide child support.

Court mediation begins with an orientation. Then parents attend their required session together, discussing possible compromises for up to two hours. The mediator may schedule additional sessions if parents make progress.

If parents reach a settlement, they skip to Step 7 after the mediator drafts a parenting agreement for them to present to the judge. If parents don't reach an agreement, they continue through the steps below.

Step 4: Hearings

Hearings are opportunities for you to briefly present your argument and evidence to the judge so he or she can determine next steps. Divorcing parents don't have their first hearing (excluding an emergency orders hearing) until at least 30 days after service.

After reviewing the facts of your case, the judge can take several actions in a hearing, including:

  • Ordering a child custody evaluation to have a mental health professional weigh in
  • Assigning a guardian ad litem to act as a witness for the court
  • Assigning a parenting coordinator to help parents communicate in high-conflict cases
  • Giving temporary custody orders to last the duration of custody proceedings
  • Ordering another hearing or a trial

You may have as few as one hearing or as many as 10 hearings spread throughout your case. Usually, they arise based on a parent's request.

Courts often schedule initial hearings for six to eight weeks into a case to give parents time to attend mediation.

Possible: Parenting class

The judge may require parents to attend a class on how divorce and separation affect children.

Classes come in two forms: one-hour classes taught by family court staff and four-hour classes presented by court-approved professionals. The judge will decide which class, if any, parents need to attend.

Step 5: Discovery

Discovery is the process in which parties request information from one another to prepare for trial. It involves both written discovery and depositions.

Written discovery includes interrogatories (written questions for parents or witnesses) and requests for records, such as financial documents or health records. You must respond within 30 days of receiving an interrogatory or request for documents.

Depositions are interviews conducted under oath. Attorneys ask questions of parents and witnesses, who must answer. Depositions typically occur after written discovery so lawyers know where to focus their questions.

The court can sanction parties who refuse to participate in discovery or who respond dishonestly.

Because discovery can last months, parties may have to attend hearings and complete other court requirements at the same time.

Step 6: Trial

If parents don't settle, their case will ultimately go to trial.

Trials can last hours, days, weeks or even months while parents present all their evidence so the judge can issue a permanent order.

There's often a significant waiting period between the last hearing and the trial, since court calendars fill up and lawyers need time to gather additional evidence.

Step 7: Permanent custody orders

To bring the court process to a close, the judge will sign a permanent order, which lays out the legal terms parties must abide by until their child turns 18 or is emancipated. The details are decided either by a judge after a trial or by the parties themselves through settlement.

If a parent believes the court made an error, he or she can appeal to a higher court.

Down the road, parents might ask the court to modify the permanent order. As children grow older and their lifestyles change, orders often need to be modified several times.

If the other parent doesn't follow the order, you should keep a custody journal and gather evidence of the violations. For serious or repeat violations, you can contact the police or file a motion for contempt with the court.

Throughout your case

During the custody process, you may need to create a parenting plan, draft visitation schedules, track your time with your child, and more.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of this in one place.

With a parenting plan template, custody calendars, a parenting time tracker and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to child custody.

Throughout your case, take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts.

Visualize your schedule. Get a written parenting plan. Calculate your parenting time.

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