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What Rights Do Fathers Have in North Carolina?

What Rights Do Fathers Have in North Carolina?

As a father, you understand how important it is to be part of your child’s life, no matter your relationship with your child’s mother. This doesn’t just include spending time with your child — but also having a vote in health-related, education-related, and child-rearing decisions that can affect your child’s future.

North Carolina has abandoned the “tender years doctrine” that presumes a mother is better equipped than a father to care for a young child. Since fathers now have an equal say in their child’s upbringing, this makes it even more important to fight for your legal and parental rights to provide your child with the brightest possible future. 

Below, we’ll discuss how paternity is established (and why it matters), as well as the rights a father enjoys under North Carolina’s paternity, custody, and support laws.


How is Paternity Established in North Carolina?

In many states, including North Carolina, one of the benefits of marriage is the presumption of paternity associated with a child born in wedlock. In other words, when a married couple has a child, both parents are presumed to be the child’s legal and biological parents without requiring any sort of genetic testing.

When an unmarried couple has a child, paternity must be legally established either by having the presumed (sometimes referred to as “putative”) father fill out a paternity affidavit or by going through a paternity action in court.


  • The Affidavit of Parentage is a legally binding contract that requires the father to make a sworn statement that he is the child’s father. Since this is a legal document, it’s hard to undo — even if the father later determines that he is not the child’s biological father. This document should be completed only if both parents are certain of the child’s biological father’s identity. When this document is completed at the hospital, the hospital files it with the North Carolina Office of Vital Statistics.
  • A paternity action or complaint can be filed in a North Carolina court by a child’s mother, putative father, or a Child Support Services attorney (if the child’s mother or the child is receiving state- or federally-funded assistance benefits). The judge may order paternity testing to see whether the putative father is the biological father. If a DNA match is confirmed, the trial court will issue a paternity order naming the father the biological and legal father.

A Father’s Rights Under North Carolina Law

Once paternity is established, fathers have the right to seek custody or visitation, petition for child support, and maintain an equal say in their child’s upbringing.

Custody Rights

Often, after a paternity order is issued, the case shifts toward legal and physical child custody.

  • Legal custody refers to the ability to make decisions about the child’s care, treatment, and upbringing. Having joint legal custody means that both parents have an equal say in these decisions and should attempt to reach a compromise when there are disagreements. However, if one parent has sole legal custody, this gives them the right to make unilateral decisions about the child’s welfare.
  • Physical custody usually refers to the child’s residence and living arrangements. Having joint physical custody requires a visitation agreement in which the child spends a similar amount of time living with either parent. If one parent has sole physical custody, this may mean that the child lives with that parent almost all the time.

Under North Carolina law, trial judges must evaluate what promotes the child’s interest and welfare when making a decision about custody. Either parent can petition for sole custody, agree to joint custody, or work together with the other parent to draft a custody agreement that the judge approves.

Visitation Rights

Custody generally goes hand in hand with visitation. Whether you and your child’s other parent have joint custody or one of you has sole custody, your custody agreement may include a written visitation arrangement. These arrangements can be changed over time, whether through further court proceedings or an agreement between you and your child’s other parent.

Child Support Rights

Child support is designed to help the receiving parent pay for the child’s financial needs — food, clothing, shelter, healthcare expenses, educational expenses, and other necessary costs. Often, child support may be paid either to the parent who has the child for most of the time or the lower-earning parent if parenting time is divided equally. Fathers can be just as entitled to child support as mothers. Child support may either be agreed to by the parties or awarded by a judge pursuant to the North Carolina Child Support Guidelines.

It’s important to remember that child support is separate from custody and visitation. In other words, you can’t make your payment of child support conditional on whether you see your child; and if you’re the parent receiving support, you can’t withhold visitation simply because the other parent is behind on child support.

Determine the amount of child support to be paid using our North Carolina Child Support Calculator.

Why Paternity is Important

If you and your child’s mother get along well but simply aren’t married, establishing paternity may not seem like a priority. But without some legal document — either a marriage license, an Affidavit of Parentage, or a court paternity order — affirming that you are your child’s father, you have few more legal rights than a stranger. Establishing paternity is generally in everyone’s best interest, including the child’s. 

Establishing paternity can:

  • Allow a child to qualify for benefits through their legal father (including Social Security, health insurance, federal and state benefits, and any inheritance)
  • Allow a child to access both maternal and paternal medical histories, helping speed diagnosis and guide treatment of any genetic conditions
  • Allow a father the legal right to petition for custody, visitation, and child support
  • Add a father’s name to the child’s birth certificate
  • Establish any child support obligations

The sooner paternity is legally established, the sooner the child (and father) can begin realizing its benefits.

Establishing paternity and fighting for visitation can be a complicated and stressful process. Don’t go it alone — let the experienced family law attorneys at Weaver Bennett Bland help. As a family law firm in Matthews, our attorneys are well-versed in North Carolina’s paternity and support laws and can help you fight for the best custody and visitation arrangements for your child. Contact us today to learn how we can help you. 

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