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North Carolina Custody Laws for Unmarried Parents

The parental rights of a mother are generally the same whether or not she's married. While the father of a child also has parental rights whether he's married to the mother of the child or not, usually he'll have to establish paternity first. In North Carolina, an unmarried mother who has a child has the primary right to the custody of the child. Of course, if the mother abandons the child or is proven to be unfit, these rights can change. An unmarried father, on the other hand, must establish paternity before he can claim any custody or visitation rights.

North Carolina Custody Laws for Unmarried Parents at a Glance

When conducting legal research, it's important to read the actual language of the statute. However, it can also be beneficial to read an overview of the statute in plain English. In the table below, you can find an overview of North Carolina custody laws for unmarried parents, and links to relevant statutes.


North Carolina General Statutes Section 49-14, et seq. (Civil Actions Regarding Children Born Out of Wedlock)

Establishing Paternity

When a child is born to parents who aren't married, paternity can be established (by "clear, cogent, and convincing evidence") through a civil action any time before the child turns 18 years old.

If an action to establish paternity is brought after the death of the presumed father* or more than three years after the child is born, paternity in a contested case can't be established without evidence from a blood or genetic marker test.

*No action for paternity can be filed nor judgment entered after the presumed father dies unless the action is filed under one of the following circumstances:

  • Before the presumed father died;
  • Within one year after the presumed father dies if a proceeding for the administration of his estate hasn't commenced yet; or
  • Within the period specified in Section 28A-19-3(a) for presentation of claims against an estate if a proceeding for administration of the estate of the presumed father was commenced within one year of his death.
Result of Establishing Paternity Once paternity is established, the custody and support obligations of the father are the same as those that apply to married couples. Additionally, upon establishing paternity, the father becomes responsible for the medical expenses related to the pregnancy and birth of the child.
Setting Aside a Paternity Order

A trial court can set aside a paternity order if each of the following conditions are met:

  • The order was entered because of excusable neglect, mutual mistake, fraud, or duress.
  • Genetic tests establish that the presumed father isn't the child's biological father.

Related Statute(s)

North Carolina General Statutes

  • Section 49-1, et seq. (Support of Children Born Out of Wedlock)
  • Section 49-10, et seq. (Legitimation Children Born Out of Wedlock)

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

North Carolina Custody Laws for Unmarried Parents: Related Resources

If you'd like more information related to this topic, please visit the links below:

Questions About North Carolina Custody Laws for Unmarried Parents? Ask a Lawyer

Whether the parents of a child are married or not, they still have rights when it comes to their child. But sometimes there are procedures to establish those rights. So, if you're a father who wants to establish your custody rights or a mother who wants to establish a visitation schedule for the father of the child, it's a good idea to contact a local child custody lawyer who will be experienced in the laws and procedures related to North Carolina custody laws for unmarried parents.

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