Unmarried parents in North Carolina have the same custody rights as married parents. Support for children born outside of marriage cannot be enforced until paternity has legally been established. Regardless of marital status, parents can settle custody matters out of court by signing "separation agreements." If a custody dispute goes to court, the three main principles under consideration will be the child's welfare, the rights of the parents and in some cases the child's wishes.
The main focus in any North Carolina custody case will be the child's well-being, according to Rosen Law Firm. Whether or not the parents are married, custody will be awarded to the person who, in the judge's opinion, can best reach and maintain the child's welfare. The judge has broad discretion and can weigh a number of options, including which parent can spend more time with the child, whether there are siblings, care-taking capacities, home environments and any other factors that promote or inhibit the child's physical and emotional welfare.
Either parent can file a custody claim, but Divorce.net notes that before parents appear in court they must prove they have met with a mediator. North Carolina has abolished the presumption that the mother will invariably provide the best care and therefore, gives no maternal preference in custody cases. Rosen Law Firm states a parent's right to custody is substantial, but not absolute; if a parent is deemed unfit, preference could be given to a non-parent who better serves the child's best interest. Marital status has no legal bearing on parental rights.
Judges are not required by law to consider the preference of a child in a custody case, but Rosen Law Firm documents that the opinion of a child old enough to exercise discretion is "entitled to considerable weight" in a North Carolina custody case. Judges may interview children in chambers to avoid the trauma of testifying in court.
Judges seldom split custody evenly, says the Rosen Law Firm, because the agreement assumes full cooperation on both sides. More likely, one party will be granted primary custody and the other will get visitation rights. The judge can also determine whether visitation should be supervised. Child support is not automatically awarded to the primary custodian. Divorce.net explains that child support and custody are completely separate matters and one does not necessarily determine the outcome of the other. If parents are not married, child support will not be enforced until the father legally acknowledges paternity or it is proved by DNA testing.