North Carolina Child Custody Trials

Because going to trial is expensive and stressful, most parents settle instead. Courts encourage this by requiring parties to attend mediation before they resort to trial.

If you don't reach an agreement with the other parent via mediation or other alternative dispute resolution methods, you'll ultimately end up in trial.

In a trial, both parents have the opportunity to explore evidence and question witnesses before a judge issues a permanent order.

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Preparing for trial

You'll need to present evidence ― which can include exhibits and witnesses ― to support your case. Stay focused on the custody issues you originally filed for, as the judge will rule only on those matters.

Parties learn what evidence the other side has through a process called discovery, which can last weeks or months. During discovery, each parent can interview the other's witnesses and require the other parent to share personal documents relevant to the case, such as emails or financial statements.

If you have an attorney, they'll guide you through the trial preparation process. Provide everything they ask for and be completely honest so they can prepare for arguments the other party may make.

If you're representing yourself, review the North Carolina Evidence Code. You might also consider hiring a lawyer for advice on certain topics to make sure you're court-ready.


Exhibits, or physical evidence, may consist of:

You should also bring a proposed parenting plan and visitation schedule to trial to make sure the judge knows what you believe is best for your child.

Show up to court with multiple copies of documents: at least one for the judge, one for the other parent, and one for yourself.


Witnesses can be anyone with knowledge relevant to the case. Parents almost always testify as witnesses, whereas children very rarely testify. A child will more likely do an interview with the judge outside of the courtroom.

Expert witnesses provide professional opinions and are appointed by the court or hired by a party. Examples of expert witnesses are child custody evaluators and forensic psychologists.

Lay witnesses do not offer expert opinions, but instead testify about their personal knowledge of a situation. These witnesses often include family members, friends, teachers, religious leaders, etc.

Witnesses cannot testify to hearsay (something they did not directly observe).


Trials usually take place several months after the initial filing.

Many last only a few hours and can be done in one sitting. Longer trials get broken into sessions spread over days (not always consecutive), weeks or, in some complicated cases, even months.

Be aware that the court may delay your trial date due to requests for more time from either parent.


Trials take place in a courtroom in front of a judge. Each parent sits with their attorney and interpreter, if applicable. Family, friends and the public sit in the gallery behind them. Witnesses cannot attend until after they have testified.

Do not bring your child to the trial unless ordered to by the judge.

Trials are open to the public, but extraordinary circumstances may require the court to limit access.

The parent who requested custody (the plaintiff) may give an opening statement to explain how they see the case. The other parent (the defendant) can then follow. If you're represented by an attorney, they will speak on your behalf.

The plaintiff calls witnesses and presents exhibits first. You can call any number of witnesses to testify, as long as you included them on the list you filed with the court and gave the other parent. Witnesses swear to tell the truth, then answer questions from both parties and the judge.

Next, the defendant calls their witnesses and presents their exhibits.

Later, each side can submit additional evidence (called rebuttal evidence) to disprove the other side's claims. Your judge may also have witnesses testify again.

Finally, both parties give closing arguments to summarize their points.

Frequently, judges announce rulings immediately following closing arguments, but they may take several days or even weeks to decide. Rulings become permanent orders once put on paper and signed by a judge.

A permanent order replaces any temporary orders in the case. Your options for changing a permanent order include appealing to a higher court (if there was an issue with the case) or applying for a modification (if your circumstances change substantially).


  • Observe other trials with your judge ahead of time.
  • Invite anyone to sit in the gallery who will give you confidence.
  • Do not bring your child, unless they are testifying (which is rare).
  • Dress like you're going to a job interview.
  • Arrive early so you can find your courtroom, and keep your calendar open for the day.
  • Don't talk about the case when you're in or near the courthouse.
  • Don't be too friendly with witnesses who are supposed to appear unbiased.
  • Show respect to everyone. Never interrupt, and refer to the judge as "Your Honor."
  • Be honest when you are testifying; you are under oath.
  • Take your time answering questions, but don't ramble.
  • Ask for clarification if you don't understand a question.
  • Admit when you don't know something.
  • Remain respectful even if you are upset by the judge's decision.

Staying organized

Going to trial for custody requires serious organization.

You'll need to present evidence, which could range from messages with the other parent to a calendar showing when you care for your child. You should also present a proposed parenting plan and visitation schedule to the court.

The Custody X Change app lets you create and manage all of these elements in one place.

With parent-to-parent messaging, personalized visitation calendars, a parenting plan template and more, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared not only for trial but for every step of your case.

Take advantage of our technology to get what's best for your child.

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