A claim for child custody may be made in North Carolina in several ways. The traditional way is to file a complaint for child custody. The complaint for child custody may also include claims for alimony, child support, absolute divorce, divorce from bed and board and equitable distribution. Also, a party may make a claim for custody in his or her counterclaim (filed in response to a complaint).
Another way child custody actions begin in North Carolina is when there is already a pending family law case and a party files a motion in that case. For example, if the parties have a pending equitable distribution case, a motion in the cause for child custody may be filed in the pending domestic case.
Unlike alimony and equitable distribution (the two claims that must be made prior to the entry of the divorce judgment), North Carolina child custody law provides that a custody claim may be brought at any time so long as the party claiming custody has legal standing to make the claim.
The final way a custody claim may be started is by the district court judge by its own own motion in an action for absolute divorce or divorce from bed and board. In seventeen years of practice in many different counties in North Carolina, including Wake County, Johnston County, and Durham County, I have never seen a judge start a custody case on his or her own motion.
Once a parent understands how to start a claim for custody in the courts, the next issue is whether he or she will hire an attorney or go into it without an attorney. Most people, given the complexity and importance of child custody would want a lawyer. The problem almost always in one of costs, and in North Carolina there is no right to have an appointed lawyer in a custody case.