While the issue of child custody and child support would seem to go hand in hand, the North Carolina Court system consider these components of divorce as completely separate legal issues, though one does affect the other. Where courts are concerned, the issue of child custody is viewed primarily through the lens of the court’s definition of “best interest of the child”. Child support, on the other hand, is most likely to be governed by guidelines that employ a mathematical calculation based on income of each parent and the amount of time the children spend with them. In most cases, courts adhere to guideline recommendations, but deviation from the guidelines are permitted when appropriate.
Of the many issues that arise in the course of domestic upheaval, child custody decisions can be the most emotionally wrenching. Consequently, it can become the one of the most financially draining factors in your divorce case. Because of this, the issue of child custody is frequently settled by voluntary, insightful agreement between parents for the best interests of their children. In fact, it has been shown many times that problems creatively solved by parents regarding the custody and support of their children are more readily adhered to by everyone involved, rather than those imposed by the court based on criteria that do not address the uniqueness of your circumstances. The process of learning to solve problems as separated parents is much different than problem solving of an intact family. Tools provided to parents during the separation and divorce proceeding can help the transition go more smoothly.
In many cases, reaching an agreement with respect to the best interests of your child may not be possible. For example, one or both parties may be unable to function as a joint custodian in light of substance abuse or anger management issues, one party may be planning to relocate to another state or a significant distance from the former marital home, or either or both parties may be so focused on blaming the other for the demise of the marriage that they are unable to see the importance of the other in the life of the child. In these cases, it is necessary for the court to decide the best custodial arrangement for the child.
Contrary to popular belief, North Carolina law will not allow children to simply choose with which parent they will live until they are 18. A mature child can tell the court their desires and why they may choose to live with one parent over the other, and the court may consider that to be a factor in awarding relative custodial rights to one parent over the other, but that consideration is completely within the discretion of the court.
Many people get confused about the meanings of the terms used to describe custody rights, such as “legal custody” and “joint custody”. These terms are not defined by statute, but “legal custody” generally refers to the right and responsibility to make decisions with important and long term implications for a child’s best interests and welfare. “Joint custody” is also undefined by statute. Courts and the parties are free to define this term on a case by case basis to fit the needs of a particular situation. The term “physical custody” means the physical care and supervision of a child, so parents having joint custody will have the child in their physical custody on a schedule defined by agreement or by the court.
Rhonda Moorefield is an experienced and thoughtful child custody trial attorney. She will help you consider the relative costs and benefits of presenting your case to a judge and will work with you to prepare the most efficient and sensible case for trial.
The North Carolina Child Support Guidelines are revised and republished at least once every four years and were most recently revised in 2015. The Guidelines were created and are reviewed by the Conference of Chief District Judges and contain the rules followed by North Carolina judges in making a determination of child support obligations for each parent. It is presumed that application of the Guidelines will meet the reasonable needs of the minor child in light of the relative incomes earned and child-related expenses incurred by each party.
In applying the Guidelines, the court will use one of three worksheets to determine the child support obligations. Worksheet A is used when one parent has “primary custody” and the other parent has the child for something less than 123 overnights per year. Worksheet B is the “joint custody worksheet” and is used when both parents have the child for at least 123 overnights each per year and each parent assumes financial responsibility for the child’s expenses when the child is with them. This must also represent a true sharing of expenses between the parties. Worksheet “C” is rarely used, but applies when custody of more than one child is split between parents. This worksheet has been referred to as “The Parent Trap” worksheet in reference to the 1961 and 1998 films in which each parent resides separately with one child. Each of the worksheets and a functional child support calculator can be found at: https://nddhacts01.dhhs.state.nc.us/home.jsp?TargetScreen=WorkSheet.jsp.
The child support guidelines do not necessarily answer the needs of all families in North Carolina. In cases where the combined monthly gross incomes of the parents exceed $25,000, the Guidelines will not apply and the court will consider the reasonable needs of the child and the relative abilities of each parent to provide support. Where the combined incomes of the parties fall within the Guidelines, a court may still deviate from the guidelines if it specifically finds that application of the Guidelines will not meet or will exceed the reasonable needs of the child in light of the relative abilities of the parties to provide support, or that the Guideline result would otherwise be unjust or inappropriate. If you believe this to be the case for your family, your best advice is to seek the counsel of a family law attorney experienced in matters surrounding child support.