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What Are the Grounds for Full Custody of a Child in North Carolina?

In general, North Carolina courts prefer both parents remain important figures in a child’s life after a separation. Joint custody is usually seen as the better option for a child’s wellbeing. However, under certain circumstances, full or sole custody is warranted.

While parents often settle the custody of a child out of court, disagreements on custody arrangements can mean you need to head before a judge. Maybe it’s even a case where you’re facing the prospect of one parent getting full custody.

Once this kind of custody order is in place, it can be difficult and time-consuming to change, so you should understand what getting full custody could mean for your family. If you have questions about child custody in North Carolina, speaking with an experienced child custody attorney is a good first step.

Understanding Legal and Physical Custody

A parent sitting on a couch while spending time with a child

Custody of a child consists of physical and legal custody. Both physical and legal custody can be held solely by one parent or shared between them.

Physical custody means your children will be under your direct supervision and care. You will be responsible for their everyday needs, like food, clothing, hygiene, and shelter. You’ll take them where they need to go, help them do homework, and enjoy fun outings together.

Legal custody means you’ll be involved with, or in charge of, making important decisions for and about your children. This could include major medical decisions, where they’ll go to school, if and how they practice religion, and who their other caretakers might be.

Separated parents can have just about any arrangement of physical and legal custody. The parameters will depend on factors like capability, responsibility, location, resources, and even age-appropriate input from the children themselves. The court tends to prioritize the mental and physical health of the child, as well as the continuing parent-child relationship.    

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What Is the Difference Between Sole Custody and Joint Custody?

A mother and a child working together at a desk

While people often use words like sole, joint, shared, or primary and secondary to describe custody, the law in North Carolina does not define these types of custody.

These terms can be used to describe any number of custody arrangements. This can stretch from one parent having every other weekend to an equal sharing arrangement.

Generally, a parent with sole physical custody has the children all or most of the time, and the other parent has no or very limited contact. A parent with primary physical custody may have the children the majority of the time and the other parent has scheduled and defined time with the children. Sole legal custody would usually mean that the custodial parent can make major decisions for the children without having to notify the other parent ahead of time. 

Joint legal custody and joint physical custody are typical when both parents are competent adults who can love and provide for their children. In this case, the child resides with each parent a significant percentage of the time (although the split is not necessarily 50-50), and both parents have a say in major life decisions affecting the child. However, specific circumstances of neglect or abuse are among the reasons only one parent may get full custody.

RELATED: What’s the Difference Between Sole Custody and Joint Custody?

Limits on Sole Custody

While full custody can give one parent a lot of discretion to make decisions, they still can’t violate the other parent’s rights in the child custody order, if there are any. Certain major decisions, like moving to another state, could affect the other parent’s custody rights. This means the parent with sole custody may have to get a court order amending the custody arrangement before moving far away. 

Be aware that a parent who has limited legal custody (the power to make important decisions for the child) may still need to take significant action when the child is in their care. An example would be getting medical treatment in an emergency situation.

How North Carolina Courts Decide to Award Full Custody

A professional talking with a parent and child

A parent has a constitutional right to the care, custody, and control of their child. However, this does not mean that parents will always be able to earn a share of the custody. 

It’s true that courts and judges prefer children to have both parents in their lives regularly. Strong parental relationships are extremely important for children, and if one of these relationships is severed it can have long-term negative impacts. 

Still, when the court views one party as unfit or determines that reasonable visitation is not in the child’s best interest, the parent may have limited or no access to their children.

A Child’s Best Interest Matters

A parent trying to obtain full child custody will have to meet a high burden to show it’s in the child’s best interest not to have reasonable visitation or that the other parent is unfit. There are a few factors that can come into play when a judge is deciding if a parent is capable of caring for the child:

  • The child’s relationship with the parent
  • The parent’s mental and emotional state
  • The parent’s financial stability and living situation

Some of the more serious circumstances that could lead a court to determine one parent is unfit and grant sole custody to the other include:

  • Mental illness
  • Substance abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Sexual abuse
  • Child alienation
  • Parental alienation
  • Violation of court orders
  • Incarceration

The judge can also weigh the child’s wishes regarding the custody arrangement if the child is old enough and mature enough to make a rational decision.

Supervised Custody for the Noncustodial Parent

While sole custody could be a course of action when one parent might be detrimental to a child, a judge could still determine that visitation is important—even if the child can’t necessarily live with that parent safely. This can result in supervised visitation, which means that a qualified third party oversees the parent’s time with their child to ensure the child’s protection.

A parent may need to show proof of improvement before they can take a bigger role, from unsupervised sessions to some form of custody. This could include milestones like completing parenting classes, completing therapy, finishing substance abuse treatment, or a long streak of successful visitations.

RELATED: What You Need to Know About Supervised Visitation in North Carolina

Myers Law Firm Is Here to Help

If you’re facing family law issues that could affect your family, like when full custody might be on the table, it’s important to find legal guidance from an experienced family law attorney.

Myers Law Firm has over 60 combined years of experience handling sensitive family law matters like this, and we’re ready to listen to you and help craft potential plans. Call us at (888) 376-2889 or complete this short form to schedule a free consultation.


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

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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