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4 things to know about child custody in North Carolina

In any divorce between parents, the most common - and often most contentious - dispute is about who will get custody of the children.

When both parents want custody, what happens? If the parents can't reach an agreement on their own, how will the issue be decided?

The children's needs matter most

In North Carolina, the primary question asked in every child custody and visitation case is "what is in the children's best interests?" The goal is to create an arrangement that maximizes the children's chances of being healthy, happy and successful.

Parents who show they are able to put their children's needs first have a much better chance of getting custody or visitation time.

There's no gender bias in the law

Some people think that mothers will automatically get custody after a divorce. This isn't true. The law says nothing about gender, and both mothers and fathers have equal standing.

With that said, courts do not like to disrupt children's usual routines if that can be avoided. If one parent has historically been the primary caregiver, it is more likely that he or she will get custody.

Custody can be shared

But only if the parents can commit to working together. If parents cannot collaborate and compromise, joint custody may actually hurt the children.

It is important to distinguish between "legal" custody and "physical" custody. Legal custody refers to the ability to make major decisions about the children's upbringing: things like schooling, medical care, religion and the like.

Physical custody, on the other hand, refers to where the child will live. It is less common for physical custody to be shared since moving frequently between homes can be disruptive for children. More often, one person has physical custody and the other has visitation. The extent and frequency of that visitation can vary greatly depending on the family's circumstances.

Honesty is the best policy

If you're getting divorced, your best plan is to be open and honest with your lawyer from day one. Be clear about what you want to get out of your child custody case. If there are any factors that might weigh against you, be honest about them, even if they might seem embarrassing. It's much better to be prepared than surprised. Similarly, if you have concerns about your ex's parenting, mention those as well.

Remember, everything you say to your lawyer is held in confidence. Just because you talk about something in a meeting doesn't necessarily mean that you have to bring it up in negotiations or in a hearing. The more your attorney knows, the better your chances of a successful outcome.