Going through a breakup is difficult enough on its own. But when kids are involved, separating from your spouse or partner presents a whole new set of challenges. According to 2018 data from the Pew Research Center, as many as one in four parents who are living with a child are unmarried. Sometimes, the children and both parents live together as a nuclear family. Other times, the parents live separately.
Figuring out how to co-parent and split custody can feel overwhelming after the devastation of a split. You may still be processing the end of your romantic relationship, let alone beginning to navigate your new roles as exes sharing legal and physical custody.
Although unmarried parents don’t have to go through a divorce when they break up, that does not mean there aren’t any legal questions to resolve. Those questions include:
- Who will pay child support and how much?
- How do we divide the time the children will spend with each parent? (physical custody and visitation)
- Should both parents should have full decision-making authority regarding the children? (legal custody)
Once you reach agreement on these questions, it’s best to make that agreement enforceable by court order.
What’s the first step toward getting an enforceable agreement?
That depends on whether you need to establish legal paternity. You may have voluntarily acknowledged paternity at the time of your children’s birth. That is enough to set up an initial child support obligation, but it is not enough to ensure you have custody and visitation rights.
If you were unmarried at the time of your children’s birth, you will need to establish your legal paternity. This is generally quite simple with a DNA test and/or other convincing evidence.
Once legal paternity is established, we can move forward with getting a custody agreement in place. Even if you agree on every point, it is important to file your agreement with the court.
Furthermore, it is important to have an attorney review your agreement before you file anything with the court. This is because any agreement that doesn’t comply with North Carolina law will not be enforceable.
What happens if we can’t agree on child support, custody or visitation?
Once your attorney files a petition in court, you will generally be referred to mediation, which is an out-of-court settlement process. Mediation is required by the courts.
In a mediation, a neutral person will attempt to help you and your ex communicate effectively and come to agreement on child support, custody and visitation. The mediator does not make orders. Instead, their role is to help you negotiate an agreement that you can both live with. People who come to their own agreements are more likely to abide by them.
If you can’t reach an agreement in mediation, you will need to have a court resolve things for you.
It is best to get a compassionate attorney involved as soon as possible. You need an agreement that protects your parental rights and will stand the test of time.