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Different Child Custody Arrangements and Terms Under North Carolina Law — Cary Child Custody/Visitation Lawyer


Maginnis Howard no longer practices family law. We currently work personal injury cases, consumer cases relating to credit or harassing phone calls, and wage and hour/employment cases.

There are many terms used to describe child custody arrangements; terms used include “child custody,” sole custody,” “physical custody,” “primary custody,” “exclusive custody,” “joint custody,” “custody,” “exclusive custody,” “shared custody,” “split custody,” “legal custody,” and “visitation.” These terms are used in a variety of ways and can have different meaning talking about child custody or child support. To make matters even more confusing, the word “custody” can include “custody,” “visitation,” or a combination of the two. A family law judge can award any custody arrangement that promotes the best interest of the child. Court orders and custody agreements generally refer to the custodial parent as having “exclusive custody” or “primary custody.” The noncustodial parent is generally referred to as having “visitation,” “visitation privileges,” “secondary custody,” or “temporary custody.” “Exclusive custody” has been used synonymously with “legal custody.” These terms usually refer to the person having both physical dominion and control over the child as well as primary decision-making authority on healthcare, education, and general welfare.

“Joint custody” is another type of child custody referring to two people sharing time with the child and both being responsible for decision-making on healthcare, education, and general welfare issues. Two people can have joint custody even if they have equal or unequal periods of time with the child. This allows both parties to work together in making decisions about major issues related to the child. However, even with a custody arrangement labeled as “joint custody,” the court can grant one parent the right to make major decisions alone. This non-collaborative approach is generally used with parties having a history of being unable to work together in the traditional joint-custody arrangement.

With “physical custody,” the person has the child reside with them on a day-to-day basis. Generally, the person with physical custody also has “legal custody.” The person with “physical custody” determines the daily routine of the child. However, the person with “physical custody” cannot make major decisions on issues such as health care or education. These decisions can only be made by the person with “legal custody,” “split custody,” or “joint custody.” When one person has the child for significant periods of time, they are generally known to have “primary custody,” or “sole custody.”

“Split custody” occurs when there is more than one child in a family and the parents split custody of the children. This child custody arrangement is not favored in North Carolina and is rarely used. Courts have typically been reluctant to dividing up siblings. Even though parents’ divorce, children should not.

Historically, courts have awarded primary custody to one person and temporary custody or visitation to the other person. There has been a growing trend in North Carolina toward awarding joint custody more regularly. This gives each party decision-making authority for matters regarding a child’s life.

The North Carolina Child Support Guidelines define these terms in specific ways that may be very different than under a child custody order or child custody agreement.