Under North Carolina law, there are two aspects to a custody determination: “legal custody” and “physical custody.”  Legal custody refers to the power to make important long lasting decisions regarding your children. Legal custody may be awarded to you, to your spouse, or to both of you jointly.

If you have sole legal custody, you are the primary and final decision maker for significant long lasting matters regarding your children, such as which school they attend, religious issues and who their health care providers are. The noncustodial parent will have parenting time and other rights.

Joint legal custody means that you and your former spouse will share equally in the decision making for your child.  If you and the other parent are unable to reach agreement, you may need to return to mediation or to court for the decision to be made.

Joint legal custody may not be appropriate unless certain factors are present, such as:

  • Effective and open communication between the parents concerning the child and open communication between the parents concerning the child;
  • A strong desire on the part of both parents to continue to coparent together;
  • A history of active involvement of both parents in the child’s life;
  • Similar parenting values held by both parents;
  • A willingness on the part of both parents to place the child’s needs before their own;
  • Both parents’ willingness to be flexible and compromising about making decisions concerning the child.

Physical custody refers to the physical location of the children; where they spend their time.  Like legal custody, it may be awarded to either parent or to both parents jointly.  Joint physical custody is sometimes referred to as “shared” physical custody.

Specific parenting time should always be awarded to each parent, regardless of who has physical custody.   Provisions for days of the week, school breaks, summer, holidays, and vacations are typically made in detail. In the event that one of your children will reside with you and another child will reside with the other parent, the arrangement is referred to as “split” physical custody.

If you are considering joint custody, be sure to discuss with your attorney not only the best interests of your child, but also the possible ramifications of the arrangement to child support.  An award of joint (shared) physical custody can result in a reduction in direct child support.


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