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Do North Carolina Courts Favor Mothers in Custody Cases?

One of the most common questions mothers and fathers ask at the beginning of a child custody case is, “I’ve heard courts favor mothers — is it true?”

The short answer is no. In North Carolina, the custody law is gender-neutral and doesn’t give automatic preference to men or women in child custody matters. However, it’s up to the judge in your specific case to interpret and apply custody laws when determining child custody, and he or she could do so in a way that favors more custody time for the mother.

The Law May Not Favor Mothers in Child Custody Disputes, but Tradition Does

An attorney consulting with a father

Many people believe that family law courts favor the mother because in decades past, that was the case. A few generations ago, the preference for a child’s mother to serve as the primary custodial parent was very strong and often written into state custody laws.

Over time, those older laws have been replaced by laws that don’t discriminate against either gender in custody matters. In the past several years alone, dozens of states have passed or considered laws that aim to encourage equal parenting time or even make equal time the default child custody arrangement.

Even though the bias toward mothers in custody battles is changing, the facts speak for themselves. Nationwide, fathers receive about 35% of custody time on average, according to a 2018 study from CustodyXChange. In North Carolina, where our firm is located, dads get 27.9% of custody time on average.

So, even though the tradition of courts favoring mothers is changing fast and has little basis in the custody laws on state books today, we can see based on the data that fathers in many states still face an uphill battle to get equal parenting time. We’ll explore possible reasons for this situation later in the article.

RELATED VIDEO: What Are Reasons Parents Get Full Child Custody?

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How Do North Carolina Courts Determine What’s in a Child Best Interest?

A mother caring for her children

Until the late 1970s, North Carolina family law courts preferred to give mothers primary legal and physical custody of their children. As late as 1973, a North Carolina Supreme Court decision upheld this practice.

In 1977, a big change happened: The North Carolina legislature updated the state’s custody laws to remove any explicit preference based on a parent’s gender. According to the 1977 law, family law judges must base custody decisions only on the best interests of the child, which they must determine using the actual evidence presented before them in court. The “best interest” legal standard continues today.

In 2015, the North Carolina state legislature passed a new statute that outlined the public policy of North Carolina, which can be found here. The title of the law was AN ACT TO PROMOTE THE ENCOURAGEMENT OF PARENTING TIME WITH CHILDREN BY BOTH PARENTS. This new law did not change the “best interests” standard.

So, what are the child’s “best interests”? It’s a very broad term. In fact, lawmakers made it that way so family law judges could have leeway to consider different factors and types of evidence during child custody cases.

When North Carolina family law courts try and decide what’s in the best interests of a child, here are some of their most common goals.

Maintain a healthy relationship with both parents

North Carolina courts prefer joint custody arrangements whenever possible, which means both parents get a say in important decisions in the child’s life and the child spends significant amounts of time with each parent.

Reduce stress for the child

Judges know that when parents divorce and get into a child custody battle, it can be extremely stressful for a child. So, judges don’t want the custody arrangement to add to that stress. When determining custody arrangements, courts often aim to preserve the status quo and disrupt the child’s life as little as possible.

Prioritize the child’s physical and emotional needs

Often, this means maintaining the child’s relationship with the parent they’re closest to. Sometimes, the court will favor the child’s primary caregiver or the parent with whom the child demonstrates the strongest emotional connection.

Keep siblings together

North Carolina family law courts generally make it a high priority it to maintain sibling relationships, especially between siblings who are close in age.

Prevent domestic violence and child abuse

Family law judges want to make sure children are safe and protected, so the presence of domestic violence or domestic abuse can have a major effect on the custody arrangement. Factors that are known to increase the risk of domestic violence, like substance abuse and addiction, might also factor into the judge’s decision.

Keep the child in or near their current home

If one parent wants to take primary legal and physical custody of the child and move them far away from where they currently live, the court might see this as disruptive and not in the child’s best interests.

Respect the child’s preferences

Family law courts in North Carolina don’t have any obligation to ask the child about their wishes, but they are allowed to if the child is of a suitable age and can understand the nature of the legal proceedings. The older the child, the more likely it is that their custody preference might play a role in the judge’s determination of their best interests.

Address marital infidelity and misconduct

This can be a tricky factor to weigh. Most judges know that a person cheating on their spouse or having an affair does not automatically make that person a bad parent. However, if a person engaged in marital infidelity or other misconduct and the judge believes this behavior harmed the child in some way, it might affect the judge’s custody decision.

Other factors

The weight given to all the factors listed varies from case to case and judge to judge, and other factors might play a role too. If you have questions about the elements and events that might affect the judge’s final custody decision in your specific child custody dispute, don’t wait to contact an experienced family law attorney who can help you understand your options.

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

Why Do Fathers Get Less Custody Time on Average?

A father reading to his child

After reviewing all the custody factors listed above, we can see that none of them specifically reference or include gender, and the law in North Carolina (and many other states) says family law courts can’t consider gender as a factor when determining child custody.

So, why does the study show that fathers still get significantly less custody time than mothers on average? There’s no one simple answer to this question, but there are some theories and possible reasons.

When parents are unmarried, the mother may get sole custody

The custody statistics might be somewhat skewed when you consider the fact that custody isn’t always determined because of a divorce. In North Carolina, almost 42 percent of children are born to unmarried parents. And in our state, unmarried parents have the same parental rights as married parents—but only if the father has established paternity. Until paternity is proven, the mother always gets sole custody of her child unless removed by the court.

The law has changed, but views may not have

Just because the law changes doesn’t mean people immediately change their minds about an issue. Many people still hold highly traditional views about marriage and parenting, and some judges on the bench today probably handled custody cases or practiced family law during the era when a preference for mothers in child custody cases was written into the law.

Women are still more likely to be the primary caregivers

The roles of men and women in parenting and home structures have changed a lot and become much more fluid in the past few decades. Working moms are common now, and so are stay-at-home dads. But the gap between men and women remains when it comes to caregiving and parenting time.

A 2018 Pew Research Center report concluded that between 1965 and 2011, fathers in America almost tripled the amount of time they spent parenting, from 2.5 hours per week to 7 hours per week. But over the same period, American mothers also increased their parenting time — from 10 hours per week to 14. And additional research from the Pew Research Center indicates that mothers are 78 percent more likely than fathers to not work and fill a stay-at-home parent role.

RELATED ARTICLE: 7 Mistakes That Can Hurt Your Child Custody Case

Facing a Custody Case in Charlotte, North Carolina? Myers Law Firm Is Here to Support and Guide You

If you have questions about your rights and options regarding child custody arrangements, the family attorneys at Myers Law Firm are always here to help. We have decades of experience helping parents settle custody agreements both in and outside of the courtroom, and we’ll advocate for you with passion and compassion every step of the way.

To talk with one of our family law attorneys today, call 1-888-376-ATTY (2889) or fill out our quick online contact form.


How much custody time does dad get in your state? (2018, June 5). CustodyXChange. https://www.custodyxchange.com/topics/research/dads-custody-time-2018.php

Livingston, G. (2018, September 24). Stay-at-home moms and dads account for about one-in-five U.S. parents. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/09/24/stay-at-home-moms-and-dads-account-for-about-one-in-five-u-s-parents/

Livingston, G., and Parker, K. (2019, June 12). 8 facts about American dads. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/06/12/fathers-day-facts/

Percent of Babies Born to Unmarried Mothers by State. (n.d.). U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/sosmap/unmarried/unmarried.htm

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

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