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3 North Carolina Third-Party Custody FAQs, Answered

While most child custody matters happen between birth parents, they aren’t the only ones that can file a case for custody in North Carolina. Other individuals can step forward and seek custody, but the process is different compared to a minor child’s natural parents.

When a person other than biological parents seeks custody, that person is considered a “third party.” A third party getting involved can make an already complicated custody case much more complex. Knowing when someone other than the biological parents can get custody of the child, who is eligible, and how they can show it generally aren’t easy tasks. That’s why hiring an experienced law firm before heading to family court can prove essential.

What Matters When Seeking Custody Against a Biological Parent?

Parents have a constitutionally protected right to the care, custody, and control of their child when it comes to third parties. However, there are scenarios where a caretaker or close relative could step in and obtain custody.

There are three grounds that a third party can use to pursue custody:

  • Unfitness of the parents
  • Neglect by the parents
  • Acts inconsistent with the constitutionally protected rights

A Higher Standard for Third-Party Cases

In an initial custody case between two parents, the judge decides the custody arrangement by determining what is in a child’s best interests. For third-party cases, the judge must first determine if the parents are unfit, have neglected the child, or have acted in a manner that is inconsistent with their protected rights. A third party must prove this with clear and convincing evidence, which is higher than the typical civil case standard of greater weight of the evidence.

Unfitness and neglect are closely related. The type of evidence in these cases can involve the following:

  • Their home life is unstable
  • The child is unsafe in their home
  • They have substance abuse problems
  • They are prone to physical or emotional abuse of the child
  • Their inability to care for the child’s physical, emotional, or mental needs

Acts that are inconsistent with a parent’s constitutionally protected rights are different. This occurs when the parent either leaves the child with a third party for a long time with no plan to pick up the child or invites another party into the relationship and creates or encourages a parent-child relationship. These cases can involve same-sex partners, stepparents, friends, or family who have cared for a child over an extended period of time.

Best Interest Standard

Once the third party has proven unfitness, neglect, or inconsistent acts, the judge determines what is in the child’s best interests. This is the same standard used in a case between two natural parents.

RELATED: How Do Courts Decide What’s in a Child’s Best Interest?

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Who Can Seek Custody?

In any court case, the person bringing the claim must have legal standing. While not just anyone can come forward to seek third-party custody, they don’t always have to be immediate family, either. The person seeking custody must show they have a “sufficient relationship” with the child. This relationship generally needs to be established by showing that person and child have a connection in the nature of a parent-child relationship.

The process of seeking third-party custody is the same for grandparents, close relatives, stepparents, adult siblings, and family friends:

  • There’s a strong existing relationship that they can prove
  • They’ve taken care of important parental actions, like doctor’s visits or school involvement
  • The non-parent has lived with or cared for the child for a substantial amount of time

Is Third-Party Custody Permanent?

Custody orders from the courts can come in one of three categories:

  • Emergency: When the child is facing danger, a non-parent can submit a custody petition for immediate action. This can apply when a parent abandons the child or abuse is a risk. This custody order might only be in place for a short period of time until the judge can hear evidence and make a ruling.
  • Temporary: A non-parent may be able to obtain temporary custody pending the discovery period when parties gather evidence for a trial.
  • Permanent: After a full trial, the judge can determine permanent custody when all the evidence is presented. A permanent custody order is in place until the child turns 18 or until another court order modifies the initial order.

RELATED: Denied Child Custody or Visitation? Here’s What to Do

Myers Law Firm Can Help

It usually isn’t easy for a non-parent to get custody, especially when the natural parents are still in the picture. It can take a lot of work to show a non-parent serves the best interests of the child.

Myers Law Firm has over 60 years of combined experience helping clients navigate extremely complicated and delicate legal matters, including third-party custody.

Contact us today by calling (888) 376-2889 or complete this brief online contact form to schedule your free consultation. We can help work you work toward a satisfactory custody resolution in challenging cases like these.


Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2020). Determining the best interests of the child. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/best_interest.pdf

Howell, C. (2011, January). Third Party Custody and Visitation Actions: 2010 Update to the State of the Law in North Carolina. UNC School of Government Family Law Bulletin. https://www.sog.unc.edu/sites/www.sog.unc.edu/files/reports/flb25.pdf

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50-13.1

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50-13.2

The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.

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