Although historically child custody cases have favored mothers over fathers, North Carolina law expressly states a court shall make “no presumption” of whether a mother or father is better equipped to care for a child. Unfortunately for fathers, the nationwide numbers still indicate a strong judicial bias in favor of mothers. According to 2009 U.S. Census figures, out of nearly 14 million separated parents with custody of a child, over 82% were mothers. Similar statistics show roughly 90% of all child support is paid to mothers.
The law says a judge must “promote the best interest and welfare of a child” in making a custody determination. In practice, however, that standard contains no specific definitions or guidelines, so a judge’s own bias towards the “traditional” role of mother may still prevail.
Fathers are also vulnerable in custody proceedings to allegations of domestic violence and abuse. North Carolina grants judges broad latitude to protect children and spouses from domestic violence, which makes false allegations of said violence a powerful weapon in a custody dispute. Simply threatening an allegation may compromise the father’s position and coerce him into signing a custody agreement on the mother’s terms.
Men must also be vigilant in defending themselves against false paternity claims. If an unmarried man is named as the child’s father on a birth certificate, North Carolina only allows him 60 days to dispute paternity. And a married man is always presumed to be the father of his wife’s children. At almost any time, a mother can accuse a man of fathering her child and potentially sue for child support. The law does require “clear, cogent, and convincing evidence” to establish paternity, which is generally done through a blood or genetic marker test. But if paternity has been previously established by birth certificate or court order, the burden is on the reputed father to bring action and prove he is not the father.
As with any legal dispute, a father’s (or disputed father’s) best approach is to carefully document all claims and hire an experienced attorney to advise him of all his legal rights in a custody, paternity or domestic violence case.