In North Carolina, child custody and child support matters are separate legal issues. Custody laws govern the physical control and care of children, and sometimes, dependent adults. Child support, on the other hand, governs the financial obligations parents have for their children whether the parents were ever married and irrespective of whether the parent has daily contact with the child.

North Carolina law tends to encourage agreement on issues of custody. Mediation is frequently a mandatory part of any custody or child support litigation. Frequently parents reach agreements on custody and child support in mediation. There are several types of custody arrangements that the parties might agree to including:

  • Joint physical and legal custody – Both parents share substantial and frequently almost equal time with their children. They share information jointly make decisions regarding the education, health and welfare of the child.
  • Sole physical and legal custody – The child lives with one parent and that parent makes decisions regarding the education, health and welfare of the child without input from the other parent. The other parent may or may not have visitation.
  • Primary physical and legal custody – The child resides the majority of the time with one parent and secondarily with the other. Both parents share information and jointly make decisions regarding the education, health and welfare of the child.

However, some families encounter issues so overwhelming that they are unable to agree and a trial on these issues becomes necessary. These issues commonly include a change in one parent’s location or working hours, a parent’s lifestyle choices following divorce, domestic violence, anger management, addictions and mental illness. A judge will consider a variety of factors at trial including the evidence presented and the court’s perspective relative to the best interest of your children. Based on these and other factors, courts award custody and visitation as well as the permanence of such rulings.

As with all issues surrounding divorce, mediation and creative problem-solving provide parents the strongest opportunity to create solutions to provide for the best interests of the children. When parents cannot find common ground with respect to the support and custody of their children, the family law attorneys at NicholsonPham are trial lawyers.

Emergency Orders

In rare circumstances, it may be necessary to ask a judge to enter an emergency order to protect the safety of the minor children or to prevent the other party from taking the children out of the area without your consent. If you believe you need an emergency order, please call and make an appointment to consult with an attorney at NicholsonPham as soon as possible.


I’m not the child’s legal parent but I am raising the child. Can I sue for custody?

For same-sex couples, please click HERE

Probably. NicholsonPham understands that the definition of family is changing and that children are often being raised in households where one or both biological parents are absent. We have represented numerous people such as neighbors, friends, same-sex partners and grandparents to establish and protect their rights to custody over children that they love and care for. Every case is slightly different and we invite you to call NicholsonPham for a confidential initial consultation to talk about the facts of your situation.

What is the difference between physical custody and legal custody?

The physical custody of a minor child refers to which person has the child in their home at a time – the physical care and supervision of the child. Often physical custody is shared between parents and it is common for the court (or the parties) to decide which person will have physical custody of the child on special occasions, such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and holidays. Legal custody refers to the right to make important decisions for the minor child that have important and long-term consequences – such healthcare, schooling, discipline and religious training of the child. It is presumed that parents will share legal custody, although that’s not always the case.

What is a legal parent?

In North Carolina, there are two ways to be a legal parent – either by being genetically linked to the child or by adopting the minor child. It’s one of the reasons that the attorneys at NicholsonPham urge parents who are not genetically related to adopt their children. This is true, even if your name is on the birth certificate! 

What is the difference between temporary and permanent custody?

Temporary child custody is usually decided by a judge (or agreed to by the parties) within a short period of time after someone files for a custody lawsuit. A temporary child custody agreement is not immediately appealed and does not determine the outcome of a child custody decision. Permanent custody is decided (or agreed to by the parties) as the permanent solution for how the parties will raise and care for the minor children. In some circumstances, a temporary order can become permanent.

How quickly will a judge be able to hear my case?

The caseloads for domestic court are very heavy. When you speak with an attorney at NicholsonPham for an initial consultation, we will discuss with you how quickly you may be able to present your case in front of a judge.

Does my child get to testify?

It depends on the judge and the case. Many judges try to keep children, especially young children, out of the courtroom. The rules do allow children to testify if they understand the obligation of testifying truthfully under oath. There is no hard and fast rule about how old a child must be before testifying. But, generally if a child testifies, the judge may require the child to testify in chambers to avoid a child having to be on the witness stand in front of a crowded courtroom.

Another possibility is to appoint a Guardian ad Litem for the minor child, who will be able to testify as to the child’s best interest and wishes.

Call: (919) 883-4900



A custody agreement can be as complex or as simple as you want to make it. The main issues to think about are:

  • What’s best for my kids?
  • What’s going to work for me?
  • What will the other parent/party agree to?

A number of factors are in play – personal safety for your children, ease of transition, possibility of moving far away, and any special needs of your kids. When you work with one of our attorneys to come up with a custody agreement, these are the types of questions we’ll be asking:

  • Do you prefer 50/50 time, a 2-2-3 schedule or a week on/week off schedule? There are many ways to sharecustodial time. Does one parent have a work schedule that is more conducive to having weekday nights or weekends?
  • How do you want to handle holidays or school breaks?
  • Access during non-custody times: will the children be able to call the other parent? Skype? Text? How often? Any limits on this?
  • Another typical section of a parenting agreement consists of “what happens when things go wrong” or when modifications are necessary.
  • Removal of the children from the state/country. Do you want to know about it ahead of time/have the opportunity not to approve?
  • Relocation of either party from the area …. How far is too far? What happens if you get a great job offer in Oklahoma?
  • Any concerns about parental behavior with drugs/alcohol?
  • What about your ex having someone over to spend the night?
  • Taxes: Dependency exemption – will the parties share this?
  • How much do the children spend on extracurricular activities, camps, track-outs or intersessions, after school care? These things add up – who will pay for them?


In North Carolina child support is governed by the North Carolina Child Support Guidelines. In general, these guidelines are considered fair though a court will consider factors that might result in deviations from the guidelines. In child support, as in all other areas of your divorce, the court has discretion to provide a different award when necessary and when in the best interest of the child.

North Carolina has adopted Child Support Guidelines which help parties and judges come up with guideline amounts of how much each party should have to pay, based on:

  1. The income of each party
  2. The number of nights the child(ren) spends with each party
  3. How many children there are
  4. Health insurance costs for the child(ren)
  5. Other expenses for the child(ren)

If you know how much you make per month and can calculate the other party’s monthly gross income, we recommend you start with this guideline calculator:

Parties don’t have to go to court to get child support, if they can agree on an amount. Child support agreements should be in writing to protect both parties and the attorneys at NicholsonPham can advise you and draft those agreements.


When can I stop paying child support?

In North Carolina, a parent can stop paying court-ordered child support when the child turns 18 years old or graduates from high school, whichever comes last. If you believe that you should no longer have to pay court-ordered child support or that you should have to pay less, it is better to ask a court to modify or terminate the order instead of stopping the payments without permission.

Can I ask for child support for the past?

Yes, you can request child support retroactively for the preceding three years.

What if the Child Support guidelines aren’t enough?

In some cases, it may be possible or necessary to deviate from the NC Child Support Guidelines. This can happen when the parties’ combined income is very large or when the guidelines don’t take into consideration the particular facts, such as when a parent is living with another person who has an income or when the accustomed standard of living of the child is greater that the guidelines would provide.

Do I have to pay for a college education?

Not unless you’ve agreed to do in writing. Talk with an attorney before you sign a legally-binding contract about child support.