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Know the Laws: North Carolina

UPDATED August 17, 2016

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Information on filing for, modifying, and enforcing a child support order.

Basic information

back to topWhat is child support and who can file for it?

Child support is generally an amount of money that a non-custodial parent pays to the custodial parent to help support the child when the parents live separately.  Parents may choose to come to an informal arrangement out of court for an agreed-upon amount or the court can issue a child support order.  Any parent, or any person, agency, organization or institution who has custody of a minor child, or who is filing for custody, can start a child support case in court.  Also, a minor child him/herself can start a child support case through his/her guardian.*

* NCGS § 50-13.4(a)

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back to topHow do I file for child support? Can I get help without paying a lot of money?

In North Carolina, there are two ways to begin a child support case: in civil court or through a criminal action.

In civil court
You can file for child support on your own, with a lawyer that you retain, or the Division of Social Services (DSS) can file the child support case for you.

Even if you file on your own, you can still get the help of DSS at a later point in the case.  Whether or not you’d have to pay for the help depends on your income. If you receive public assistance, DSS will help you with your child support case and you don’t have to pay for the help. If you don’t receive public assistance, DSS will help you with your child support case for a small fee, either $10 or $25, depending on your income.* The lawyer for DSS will file your case for you (or you can initially file on your own) and a DSS lawyer will represent you in court and in enforcing the order if the other parent doesn't pay.

As mentioned above, you may also represent yourself. If you decide to represent yourself, you must follow all the rules of procedure and evidence that apply, which may be hard for a non-lawyer to know.  Also, remember that the judge hearing your case is not allowed to give you advice or help in handling your case. The court clerk also cannot give you legal advice or represent you.  For legal referrals, free and paid, go to our NC Finding a Lawyer page.

In criminal court
Under North Carolina law, it can be a misdemeanor crime if a parent “willfully” refuses to provide adequate child support** even before there is a child support order issued.  “Willfully” has been defined as when a parent intentionally and without just cause or excuse does not provide adequate support for his/her child according to his/her "means" (financial ability to pay) and "station in life" (financial, educational, occupational position).***  If a parent is convicted of this crime, the court can order support to come from the property or labor of the defendant and can issue a child support order based on the state guidelines.****  In other words, the judge can force the parent to transfer property to you or can garnish (take money directly from) the parent’s wages.  The judge can give the defendant a jail sentence that would be suspended for a period of time based upon the condition that the defendant pay child support in a certain amount upon a certain schedule. If the defendant fails to follow the order, the suspended jail sentence may be placed into effect. 

You may bring this criminal action asking for child support by obtaining a warrant from a magistrate.

* NCGS § 110-130.1(a)
** NCGS § 14-322(d),(f)
*** See State v. Hall, 251 N .C. 211, 110 S.E.2d 868 (1959)
**** NCGS § 14-322(e)

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back to topWho is responsible for the support of a child?

In most cases, the child’s parents are primarily responsible for supporting their child; however, there are circumstances which place responsibility for the support of a child upon someone else, such as the child’s grandparents.  For example, if the parents of the child are themselves unemancipated minors (under age 18 and not emancipated), the grandparents of the child share the responsibility of support with the unemancipated minor parents even if someone other than the child’s parent(s) or grandparent(s) has custody of the minor child.*  For more detailed information on child support when the parent(s) are minors, see the When a parent is a minor section.

* NCGS § 50-13.4(b)

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back to topWhat happens if parents (over the age of 18) are not employed?

If the parent is capable of working, the court may order that an unemployed parent work or look for a job.  Parents over the age of 18 are legally responsible for supporting their children whether they are working or not. This applies even when a parent does not have legal custody of the child.*

* NCGS § 50-13.4(b)

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back to topWhat is emancipation?

Emancipation is basically a way for a minor (under age 18) to become an adult in the eyes of the law.  Once a person becomes emancipated, his/her parents are no longer responsible for him/her and the emancipated minor can file court cases, enter into contracts, or legally do anything that an adult can do. 

A minor child automatically becomes emancipated (without going to court) if s/he gets married.*  To become emancipated by a court (without getting married), the child has to be 16 or older to ask the court for emancipation.**  The child must prove that emancipation is in his/her best interests.  The judge would hold a hearing, consider many factors (which can be found here on our NC Statutes page), and decide whether or not to grant the emancipation.***

* NCGS § 7B-3509
** NCGS § 7B-3500
*** NCGS § 7B-3503; see also § 7B-3504

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The court process

back to topCan I keep my personal information confidential?

Yes.  Your personal information (such as your address) can be available to the other people involved in the case unless you can prove to the judge that the health, safety, or liberty of a party or child would be unreasonably put at risk if this identifying information is not kept confidential.  The judge can hold a hearing ex parte (without the other party present) when making this decision.  Also, if there is an existing order from another case that says that your identifying the information cannot be disclosed, that could apply to the child support case as well.*

* NCGS § 52C-3-311

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back to topDo I have to pay court fees if I file a child support case?

The person who files for support does not have to pay any filing fees.*  The judge may order the non-custodial parent (the one ordered to pay support) to pay filing fees, your reasonable attorney’s fees, necessary travel fees for your witnesses, etc.** 

* NCGS § 52C-3-312(a)
** NCGS § 52C-3-312(b)

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back to topHow soon after I file can I get support?

The judge can issue a temporary support order after you file your petition while you are awaiting the hearing on child support.*  The date of the hearing may depend on many factors but could take between a few weeks and a few months to be scheduled.

* NCGS § 50-13.5(d)(2)

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back to topWhere does the court proceeding for support take place?

Generally, the court hearing for child support takes place in the county where the child lives or is physically present or in a county where one of the parents live.*  There are some exceptions, so you may want to consult an attorney for more information about your case.  You can find legal referrals on our NC Finding a Lawyer page.

* NCGS § 50-13.5(f)

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Child support payments

back to topHow does the court decide what amount the child support should be?

To decide the amount of child support, the judge will look at child support guidelines, which are a mathematical formula that is designed to give each child a fair amount of support based on his/her parents’ ability to provide for the needs of the child.  Under the guidelines, the amount that is ordered should:

  1. meet the reasonable needs of the child for health, education and maintenance;
  2. consider the estates (the property owned by the parents), earnings, and the ability of the parents to pay;
  3. consider the standard of living that the child and the parties are used to;
  4. consider the child care and homemaker responsibilities of each party; and
  5. account for other relevant facts of the particular case.*

However, if either party requests it, the judge can hold a hearing and listen to evidence presented by both parties before deciding the amount of child support that is owed.  At the hearing, the judge must consider these three questions when deciding whether or not to order an amount of support outside of the guidelines:

  • Would applying the guidelines not meet the reasonable needs of the child? (be too little money)
  • Would applying the guidelines exceed the reasonable needs of the child? (be too much money)
  • Would applying the guidelines otherwise be unfair or inappropriate?

If the judge answers “yes” to any of these questions, then the judge can order a different amount of support than the guideline calls for, but the judge has to explain why s/he ordered a different amount.*

* NCGS § 50-13.4(C)

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back to topWhen are child support payments due?

Child support payments are usually due on the first of every month.  The parent ordered to pay child support may have his/her wages garnished on the day s/he is paid, even if that date is not the first of the month.*

* NCGS § 50-13.4(c)

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back to topHow long are child support payments made? Until my child reaches what age?

Court-ordered child support payments usually end when the child reaches the age of 18 except if any of the following apply:

  1. if the child is emancipated, child support payments will end on the emancipation date;
  2. if the child is still in school when s/he turns 18, support payments may continue until the child:
a. graduates,
b. stops regularly attending school,
c. fails to progress towards graduation, or
d. reaches age 20 - whichever of these comes first.*

Note: In section "a" or "c" above, when the child support is paid until the child (who is at least 18 years old) graduates from high school or when s/he reaches 20 years of age, the person responsible for paying child support does not have to file a motion to ask the court to end the child support order.*

If the noncustodial parent's obligation to pay child support ends due to the one of the reasons listed above, s/he is still responsible to pay any past child support owed (called "arrearages") that built up during the time the child support order was in effect.  The child support payments should continue to be paid as set out in the court order until all arrearages (past-due support) and fees are paid, unless the judge changes the order.*

* NCGS § 50-13.4(c)

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back to topCan I get a retroactive child support order?

“Retroactive support” refers to child support for a period of time before the child support action/petition was filed.  In some cases, a judge may order that a non-custodial parent pay retroactive support.  The amount of support can be based on either:

  • how much the non-custodial parent would have been required to pay under the child support guidelines at the time; or
  • the non-custodial parent's “fair share” of the actual money spent for the child's care during that period of time.*

Retroactive support may be paid to either the state or the custodial parent, depending on the situation.

Retroactive support is owed to the State if a parent has a legal duty to support the child while the custodial parent was receiving public assistance (benefits) for the child.**  In a sense, the child support payment is reimbursing the State for the money spent providing public assistance.

Retroactive support may also be owed directly to the custodial parent (the parent with whom the child primarily lived during the time period). 

* See the North Carolina Child Support Guidelines
** NCGS § 50-13.4(a)(b)(c)

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back to topWhen payments come through the State Child Support Collection and Disbursement Unit, how do I enforce the support order?

Upon the request of either party, or if the judge decides to do so on his/her own, the judge can order at any time that support payments be made to the State Child Support Collection and Disbursement Unit and then sent to you.*  When payments come through the State Child Support Collection and Disbursement Unit, this agency is the one that would bring child support enforcement case if the parent isn’t paying what s/he is ordered to pay.**

* NCGS § 50-13.9(a)
** NCGS § 50-13.9(b1)(1)

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When a parent is a minor

back to topWhen minor(s) have a child, how long do the minor’s parents (the child’s grandparents) have to help support the child?

If both parents are under 18 (and unemancipated) at the time of the child's conception, their parents (the child’s grandparents) share primary responsibility for supporting the child. This responsibility lasts until both minor unemancipated parents become age 18 or are emancipated.*  For example, if a 17 year-old and a 15 year-old have a baby, both sets of grandparents are responsible for the baby's support for 3 years - until the 15 year old turns 18 (or until s/he is emancipated). This is to make sure that all four grandparents (or as many as there are alive) have to support the baby until BOTH of the baby’s parents are 18 or emancipated.  A court will determine the amount that the child’s grandparents must pay to help support the child.*

If only one parent was under 18 (and unemancipated) at the time of the child's conception and the other parent was over 18, the over-18 parent has primary responsibility to support the child for his/her share and the grandparents of the under-18 (unemancipated) parent shares primary responsibility for his/her share of the child support.  However, if the over-18 parent does not pay, and owes past-due child support (called "arrearages"), all of the grandparents are liable for arrearages (past-due support) until the minor parent reaches the age of 18 or becomes emancipated.*

* NCGS § 50-13.4(b)

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back to topIf I care for a child who is not biologically mine and s/he has a baby, am I responsible to help support the baby?

Possibly.  Any person, agency, organization or institution that stands in loco parentis (“in place of a parent”) of a minor unemancipated child who has a baby may be secondarily liable for the support of the minor child if the judge orders this (after considering many factors). The minor parent(s), however, still have a duty to support their child.*

* NCGS § 50-13.4(b)

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Health insurance coverage

back to topCan I get my child's medical expenses included in the order?

Yes.  The court may order a parent to provide medical support for the child or the parents can make a written agreement as to who will provide this support.  "Medical support" generally means doctor, hospital, dental and other health-care related expenses.*  Note: The judge can specify that the parent has to maintain health insurance for the benefit of the child when health insurance is available at a "reasonable cost."   The cost is considered "reasonable" if the coverage for the child is not more than 5% of the parent's gross income.  This 5% could cover either the cost of:

  • adding the child to the parent's existing coverage;
  • buying coverage only for the child; or
  • if the parent has to get new coverage, it could be the difference between the cost of a "self-only" plan and family coverage.**

Additionally, the judge may require one or both parties to maintain dental insurance for the child.**

* NCGS § 50-13.11(a)
** NCGS § 50-13.11(a1)

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back to topIf the other parent provides health insurance for my child, will I be kept informed of changes to the insurance?

Yes.  The parent ordered to provide health insurance is supposed to provide written notice of any change in the insurance coverage to the other parent.  Also, the employer or insurance company that provides the insurance coverage is supposed to give you whatever information you need about the coverage if you request it in writing.*  When a noncustodial parent ordered to provide health insurance changes jobs, s/he is supposed to tell the new employer to enroll your child in the new health insurance plan.**

* NCGS § 50-13.11(b),(c)
** NCGS § 50-13.11(f)

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back to topCan I sign off for my minor child’s insurance coverage papers even though I am not the parent paying for the coverage?

Yes.  When a court order or agreement for health insurance is in effect, the signature of either parent is enough for the insurer to process an insurance claim for your child.*

* NCGS § 50-13.11(d)

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back to topWhat happens if the other parent violates the order and doesn’t keep up my child’s health insurance?

If the parent who is ordered to provide health insurance does not keep the insurance coverage for the child, then s/he is responsible for any health, hospital, or dental expenses that would have been covered by insurance if there were proper coverage.*

* NCGS §50-13.11(e)

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Modifying the order

back to topCan a child support order be changed or even stopped after the court orders it?

Possibly.  If either party can prove that there has been a change in circumstances since the order was issued, it’s possible that the order may be changed by a judge.*  Even if the order was issued in another state, if the court in North Carolina gets jurisdiction (power) over the case, the judge can enter a new order for support which changes the other state’s order.**  To find out how a court in NC can get jurisdiction over your order from another state, please talk to a lawyer.  For free and paid legal referrals, go to our NC Finding a Lawyer page.

* NCGS § 50-13.7(a)
** NCGS § 50-13.7(b)

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back to topWhat does a “change in circumstances” mean?

A change in circumstances means a change in the child’s situation that affects the welfare of the child;* in other words, does the child need more or less money to be properly supported?  Possible examples may include situations where the child needs special help with tutoring or the child have a special talent and takes lessons. There are a lot of reasons that a child might need more or less support over time. You might want to talk about your case with your local child support enforcement agency or with a lawyer.

* See NCGS § 50-13.7

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back to topCan a child support order from another state be modified in North Carolina?

Sometimes, but only under certain conditions, which are found in section 52C-6-611 of the law on our NC Statutes page.  The legal requirements are complex, however, and you may want to talk to an attorney who can advise you as to whether or not you can modify the order based on the facts of your case.

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Enforcing a child support order

back to topIn what ways may the court order child support to be paid?

The court may order that child support be paid:

  • in a lump sum payment;
  • by periodic payments, which means payments are weekly or monthly; and/or
  • by giving personal property of the parent paying support to the parent receiving support.*
Note: If the paying parent has fallen behind in payment (known as child support "arrears") and the parent who has to pay is the sole owner of certain land or real estate, the court may order the land or real estate to be given to the other party if the value of the real estate is not more than the arrearages (the back support owed).*

* NCGS § 50-13.4(e)

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back to topI don’t think the non-custodial parent will pay me the child support s/he owes. Can his/her income be withheld right away to collect the money for child support?

Yes, if the child support order was entered on or after January 1, 1994, the court does not have to wait for the person ordered to pay child support to miss a payment before ordering income withholding* (also known as "assignment of wages").  Although often times, a judge will include income withholding in the order automatically, you may want to ask for income withholding in the original order to make sure the judge considers and includes this provision.

* NCGS § 50-13.4(d1)

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back to topIf the paying parent fails to pay support, what can be done to enforce the child support order?

Below are several things that a court can do to enforce a child support order but other ways may be available as well.  To figure out what may likely happen in your case, you may want to talk to a lawyer.  The judge can do one or more of the following:

  1. order the paying parent to post a bond (leave a sum of money with the clerk of superior court) that could be given to the parent receiving child support if the support isn't paid;
  2. order the paying parent to have his/her employer deduct the money from his/her wages, income or salary and have it sent directly to the parent receiving child support. This is known as an “assignment of wages” or "income withholding;"
  3. order the paying parent to give to the parent receiving support certain personal property and/or land/real estate;
  4. have the paying parent arrested and be required to post bail in an amount set by the judge;
  5. "attach" the paying parent’s assets, which basically means that the parent receiving support becomes a creditor and gets a lien against the paying parent’s assets. The parent can enforce the lien just as any creditor could. (A lien is a legal claim upon the property of another person to secure the payment of a debt).  Note: The child can also become a creditor against the paying parent if the parent fraudulently gives away property or assets in order to hide them from being used to pay off his/her child support arrears;
  6. issue an injunction to order the paying parent to do something or to not do something.  For example, the paying parent may be ordered not to sell certain property or remove money from bank accounts, etc.;
  7. appoint a "receiver," which is a person the judge chooses to control the paying parent’s money and property and see that the support is paid;
  8. hold the paying parent in civil contempt for failing to make payments (if you file a petition for contempt) and the judge can sentence the parent to the punishments available for criminal contempt,* which is a fine of up to $500, imprisonment up to 30 days (or up to 120 days if the sentence is suspended as long as the parent pays), or both;** and/or
  9. suspend the paying parent’s license(s) after s/he becomes one month behind in support.***
You can talk to a lawyer or your local child support enforcement agency about all the ways you can collect past due child support.  For legal referrals, go to our NC Finding a Lawyer page.

* NCGS § 50-13.4(f)
** NCGS § 5A-12(a)(3)
*** NCGS § 50-13.12(b)

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back to topMy license was suspended because I fell behind in my child support. How can I get my license back?

If you lose your license for failing to pay support, you can file a petition in district court to get your license back. The judge can give you back your license as long as you fully pay off the past-due support over time and you keep up with your current child support payments.*

* NCGS § 50-13.12(d)

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back to topI have a child support order from another state but now I live in North Carolina. Can I enforce it in North Carolina?

Generally, there may be two ways to enforce an out-of-state support order: administratively, which means through the child support enforcement agency or through the court.

To enforce an order administratively, you would have to send certain documents to your local child support enforcement agency and they can attempt to enforce it as they would enforce a North Carolina order.*  However, the paying parent has the right to object to this. If s/he does, then the agency would have to register the order in court.** 

You also have the option to register the order in court to enforce it.  (To see what types of documents are necessary for registering an out-of-state order in a NC court, please see our NC Statutes page, section 52C-6-602). The other parent has 20 days after receiving the notice of the registration of the order to object.  An objection would be made by filing papers in court to request a hearing if s/he thinks the child support order is not valid or that the order should not be enforced in North Carolina.  If s/he asks for a hearing, the judge has to set the case for hearing and notify all of the parties the date, time and place for the hearing.***  If the other parent does not request a hearing within 20 days, the order becomes registered, or confirmed, as it is called.****

You might want to talk with a lawyer or the child support enforcement agency in your county’s Division of Social Services to get some help and to find out exactly what documents you’d need to send in to register the order because it can be complicated.  You may also want to get a lawyer if your case is set down for a hearing.  For legal referrals, go to our NC Finding a Lawyer page.

* NCGS § 52C-5-507(a)
** NCGS § 52C-5-507(b)
*** NCGS § 52C-6-602(a),(c)
**** NCGS § 52C-6-602(b)

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back to topIf I have to enforce an order from North Carolina or from another state, can I get help?

There may be a couple of ways to get help to enforce an order from North Carolina or from another state.  If you request it, you may get help from your local child support enforcement agency.*  Also, the district attorney may represent you if you have brought a criminal action against the person who owes you support or in certain other cases.  Lastly, you may get your own attorney.**

* NCGS § 52C-3-307
** NCGS §§ 52C-3-308; 52C-3-308.1

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back to topCan the court order the other parent to pay my attorney’s fees?

Possibly.  In some cases, the court may order the person who refuses to pay child support to pay the other parent’s attorney’s fees. Alternatively, if the judge believes that one parent has filed a frivolous (meaningless) court case, the judge may order the person who brought the frivolous case to pay the other parent’s attorney’s fees.*

* NCGS § 50-13.6

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