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Legal Information: North Carolina

Child Support

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Laws current as of December 22, 2023

What 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.1

1 NCGS § 50-13.4(a)

How 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.1 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 support2 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 financial ability to pay (“means”) and financial, educational, occupational position (“station in life”).3  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.4  In other words, the judge can force the parent to transfer property to you or can garnish 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.

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

Who 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 areunder 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.1  For more detailed information on child support when the parent(s) are minors, see the When a parent is a minor section.

1 NCGS § 50-13.4(b)

What happens if the parents 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.1

1 NCGS § 50-13.4(b)

What 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.1  To become emancipated by a court, the child has to be 16 or older to ask the court for emancipation.2  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 on our Selected North Carolina Statutes page, and decide whether or not to grant the emancipation.3

1 NCGS § 7B-3509
2 NCGS § 7B-3500
3 NCGS § 7B-3503; see also § 7B-3504