This is one of the questions I get asked all the time by parents going through divorce: “Why do I need a child custody order?”

The answer is, in a word, enforcement.

A court order, that is a document signed by a judge requiring certain behavior, is very different from a private agreement.   A court order has the authority of the state behind it.  That means that if a person doesn’t comply there are rules and procedures to obtain compliance that can range from a simple admonishment to jail.  So, if you have a court order for custody and let’s say it compels a parent to do certain things and that parent does not… then the court can punish the noncompliance.

Contrast the court order with a separation agreement.  A separation agreement is a private contract that spouses enter into to make arrangements on a wide range of issues, and often includes agreements about custodial schedules and parenting.  A separation agreement, just like any  other private contract, is enforced by filing a lawsuit for breach of that agreement or an action to ask the court to compel compliance.

So, if you worry that the  other parent will make things difficult for your custodial access, then it’s easy to see what a court order related to the custodial schedule would be better.

North Carolina family law attorney Scott Allen  has over seventeen years of divorce law experience.  If you have questions or need assistance call him at (919) 863-4183 or email at