Written by Jonathan Breeden
Unmarried parents in North Carolina often feel the system is designed against them. And it can be the source of a lot of headaches when dealing with your child’s other parent or deciding custody, support, and visitation issues.
But, despite how traditional our legal system may seem, your parental rights are not based on being married. In fact, North Carolina usually focuses on the biological and legal relationship between children and their parents. To better understand your rights as an unmarried parent in North Carolina, we’ve outlined some of the common family law issues you may encounter.
It should give you some comfort that unmarried parents have the same parental rights as married couples in North Carolina. No matter your relationship status, you have the right to establish paternity, pursue child custody, and ask for support.
Are you a single mother dealing with an inactive father or a father being kept from his child?
To start asserting your rights as a parent, you need the law to recognize you as the child’s legal parent. This means establishing paternity as soon as possible.
Both mothers and fathers have the right to establish parentage. A judge can order the father to submit to a DNA test or require a mother to bring the child to a DNA test. A lot depends on the unique situation, but the results of a genetic test can be submitted as evidence in court. By legally establishing paternity, you can assert many of your other parental rights.
Once parentage is established, unmarried parents can either come to an agreement regarding child custody and visitation or petition the court to create a custody schedule. This can ensure that both parents take on their fair share of responsibility and everyone gets the opportunity to build a strong relationship with their child.
In North Carolina, custody decisions are based on the best interests of the child and allow for several types of custody arrangements. Generally, your options include primary, secondary, or joint custody.
In some circumstances, a judge may grant you primary physical custody. This means the child lives with you full time. As a result, the other parent then has secondary custody and sees the child during visitation, which may or may not include overnight visits. However, a judge can also award joint custody where you and the other parent equally split your child’s time.
In North Carolina, there is no presumption that mothers get primary custody over fathers. If you are an unmarried father, you have every right to seek joint or full custody. You do not have to quietly accept a small amount of visitation time.
As an unmarried parent, you also have a right to pursue legal custody. This lets you participate in making decisions regarding your child’s care and upbringing, like where they go to school, the medical care they receive, and what religion, if any, they are brought up in. Legal custody does not have to be divided the same way as physical custody, but it may be similar. If you are the custodial parent, you may also have full legal custody. However, you can still split legal custody with the other parent.
Once paternity and child custody get decided, you can figure out child support. If you obtained primary custody, then you may ask for child support. But, if you have less than half of your child’s time, you may be required to pay support.
North Carolina has strict child support guidelines that determine how much the non-custodial parent must pay each month. These guidelines can be complicated and things can get contentious quickly. That’s why it is best to work with an experienced attorney when dealing with a child support matter. A lawyer can review the situation and ensure the decision accurately reflects the law and the situation.
If you are an unmarried parent and are wondering about your rights, contact experienced North Carolina family law attorney Jonathan Breeden at (919) 205-5254. Attorney Breeden will look at your situation, answer your questions, and guide your next best steps, whether that is heading to court or working directly with your child’s other parent.