Family Courts in North Carolina

Family Court is a specialized court in 13 North Carolina court districts serving about 45% of North Carolina citizens. Family Court was originally established in 1999 to create a separate court system by which family issues would be resolved in a more efficient and cohesive manner then the typical court system. This is achieved by: 1) providing one judge to handle all the issues of one family; 2) limiting continuances; and 3) providing for predictable calendaring.

Assigning one judge to the matter is the cornerstone of any family court system. Having one judge assigned to every aspect of a family’s matter allows that judge to familiarize themselves with the specific needs of that family and better address the issues specific to that family. There can be many issues facing a family going through a dissolution of the marriage – child support, divorce from bed and board, child custody, alimony, equitable distribution, and absolute divorce are several claims that may be prompted by a separation of the parties. Pursuant to these claims, there are numerous motions and/or interim solutions which could become relevant based upon the family's particular circumstances. For instance, ex-parte child custody, temporary child custody and child support, interim distribution, temporary restraining orders, post-separation support, motions and orders to show cause in contempt, and/or motions to compel may become necessary. Many of the facts in each motion or claim may overlap, such as: Post-separation support and alimony, or temporary child custody and child custody. In order to prevent disparate outcomes, long recounts of a family’s history, and uneven applications of the law between claims and so as to provide the opportunity for tailored rulings specific to the details of a particular family, the family court system requires that one judge hear all the issues of the family whenever possible. 

In addition, when one judge is assigned to a matter, that matter stays on the judge’s calendar until resolved. Parties are unable to continue a matter so as to get a “favorable” judge or to delay a matter simply to cause the other party hardship. Furthermore, one of the penultimate goals of family courts are to resolve the issues of a family within one year. This one-year goal coupled with the restrictions on continuances cuts down the amount of continuances which will be allowed or tolerated by the Court. According to the 2011 Annual Report on NC’s Unified Family Court Programs which looked at the duration and length of cases over a seven year period, in counties with a family court system, only 22 percent of domestic cases were not resolved within a year as compared to 47 percent in non-family court counties. The seven year average age for cases in family court is 108 days whereas, in non-family court jurisdictions, the average age over the last seven years was 332 days.

Many family courts employ a simple and predictable calendaring system. For instance in New Hanover County, North Carolina, judges typically have a two-week session in each month dedicated to family issues. Each judge’s session is published in advance and the cases on the calendar are organized at calendar call. If a matter is not able to be heard during that session, the family court administrators move it to the next session and it remains on the calendar from session to session until it is heard by the Court. For smaller or quicker matters, some judge’s will schedule shorter sessions when time allows.

Since 1999, Family Courts in North Carolina have been providing parents with tailored and efficient resolution of their family law issues. Despite the numerous advantages of a family court system, in recent years, family court has been under attack in the North Carolina legislature. Recent moves by the legislature to cut funding to the family court system in North Carolina only means an increase in inefficiency, time, and hardship for the family’s of North Carolina. Richard Kern Law, PC, encourages all parents and spouses in North Carolina to write your state representative and let them know that funding for family courts in North Carolina (as well as other specialized courts in North Carolina) should not be cut when there are proven advantages to them being retained.