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How to File for Divorce in North Carolina

The decision to dissolve a marriage can be a difficult one, with many logistical and emotional factors to consider. When you start planning to divorce, it’s important to understand the process, your rights, the costs, and what kind of outcomes you should expect. You may have specific goals in mind in regard to the way you divide property, assign child custody, and what kind of ongoing payments you could receive or be required to pay, such as alimony payments.

The first step is to decide what your goals are. Is primary custody of your kids important to you? Keeping your business? Having an amicable divorce? From there, you’ll need to dive into the facts of your case to evaluate if and how you could fight for those desired outcomes.

How Do I File for Divorce in North Carolina?

Each state has its own specific rules that apply to divorce. Below is an overview of the process in North Carolina.


North Carolina requires a one-year-plus-one-day separation before divorce proceedings can begin. During this year you must both live in different homes and at least one of you has to intend for the separation to be permanent. If you want your divorce to go through the North Carolina courts, at least one of you needs to live in the state for the six months leading up to the filing.

Divorce Paperwork

To start the divorce process after the separation in North Carolina, you’ll need to gather the appropriate forms for the court. Many of these can be found on the state court website, or you could pick them up from your local state court house. The first set of paperwork includes:

  • A Complaint for Absolute Divorce. A complaint is the official term for the start of a lawsuit that sets out what you hope to achieve. A divorce complaint states your desire to obtain a divorce and provides some of the basic facts relevant to your case.
  • A Domestic Civil Action Cover Sheet. This form includes important procedural information, like the type of pleading you’re filing, your claim for relief, and summons submission.
  • A Civil Summons. This form is used in the process of serving notice to your spouse, alerting them that you’ve filed paperwork to begin divorce proceedings. There are strict rules around summons procedures, so it’s essential to fill these documents out correctly and timely.

You may need additional forms, depending on the specific circumstances of your case.

After completing the necessary paperwork, you’ll give it to your county’s Clerk of Court and pay associated fees. These fees run a couple hundred dollars in North Carolina, but in some circumstances you can file for financial relief.

Serving Your Spouse

You are required to arrange service to your spouse so they can receive a copy of your complaint and the summons. You’re prohibited from serving them with the paperwork yourself, so you’ll have to either hire someone to deliver it for you, like a sheriff, send the paperwork by certified mail, or in some cases, publicly publish the information.

Incorrect process of service can delay and complicate your case. The North Carolina laws that relate to service must be followed exactly as outlined. Your spouse will then have requirements for when and how they provide a response, or “answer,” to your complaint.

Getting a Divorce Hearing

After service and answer, you’ll move on to scheduling a divorce hearing before the court, at which point you’ll be responsible for filling out more paperwork to provide your spouse with notice of the date.

When your court date arrives, you’ll need to go before a judge with the correct documentation in hand; incorrect or missing paperwork could mean your case gets dismissed, and you’ll have to start the process over again. You and your spouse will have the opportunity to take the witness stand and explain your side of the situation and make arguments for why you deserve the outcomes you want, or why your spouse doesn’t deserve the outcomes they want. In some cases, it may take more than one hearing to work out all of the terms of your divorce, such as child custody, division of assets, and the formal divorce decree.

Cost of a Divorce

For most divorces in North Carolina, you should expect to pay a few hundred dollars for filing fees and fees for additional motions and claims, like for reclaiming a maiden name, for example. You may also need to pay for serving divorce papers to your spouse.

Your divorce attorney will be particularly helpful if your divorce is contested, meaning that you and your spouse do not agree on all the terms of the divorce. This is common even in divorces that are relatively amicable – there’s a lot of issues to resolve in a divorce. If you do use an attorney, you’ll need to pay attorney fees as well. These costs can vary greatly depending on who you hire and how much time and work it takes to complete your case. This may be well worth the cost, however, if the result is that you can keep your business, obtain fair child support, or even just be able to see your kids.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Divorce in North Carolina?

How long it takes your divorce to finalize will depend on several factors, starting with whether the case is contested or not.

  • An uncontested divorce occurs when both spouses agree to every issue in the divorce, including child custody, alimony and property division. An uncontested divorce can be beneficial in that it is quicker and less expensive, but it can be difficult for both parties to the divorce to agree on everything.
  • A contested divorce occurs when the spouses can’t agree on all the terms of their divorce. This could mean disagreeing about how to divide shared property or who any children will live with.

Uncontested divorces usually progress faster than a contested divorce. After the initial year of separation, you my be able to finalize your divorce in as little as 30 days from the date you filed.

The length of a contested divorce depends on the goals of the people involved and the complexity of the contested issues. As just one example, disputes over the value of property or a business can take time to resolve.

Do I Need a Divorce Lawyer?

North Carolina courts will generally allow spouses to proceed without an attorney, especially in uncontested cases, but they are very adamant that divorcing couples should obtain legal representation in most cases.

Most of the terms set in your final divorce decree won’t be altered again. That means that if you make any mistakes or don’t know what you’re entitled to, you could lose the right to ever recover those losses. Errors in the complicated filing process could get your case dismissed. It could cost you more time and money in the long run if you unsuccessfully try to represent yourself.

Working with an experienced divorce attorney can help you identify more ways to get what you want out of the split. They could help you negotiate an agreement without a trial, or if it does go to trial, they could help you prepare your arguments and represent you in court. With expert knowledge and experience, you could end up with a better outcome than if you have to try and go it alone.

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