Family Law

The Legal Rights and Responsibilities of a Parent

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
Learn more about your parental rights and responsibilities.

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Who is a Parent?

Each state has its own laws governing parental rights and responsibilities, but generally, parents are the individuals that have legal custody of a child. A child can’t have more than two legal parents at a time. For example, the parents of an adopted child are the child’s legal custodians, although they aren’t the biological parents. A biological parent’s legal rights to a child are severed upon adoption.

In other cases, a parent may lose legal rights to a child if a court terminates the parent’s rights for extreme neglect or violence toward the child. In cases where one or both parents’ rights are terminated, a custodian or legal guardian may be appointed to serve as the child’s parent. Whether a child’s legal parents are biological or court-appointed, they enjoy the same rights and responsibilities under the law.

What are Parental Rights?

Specifically, parental rights include:

  • right to physical custody, which means reasonable visitation with a child and regular contact
  • right to legal custody, meaning the ability to make major decisions about the child's health, education, and religious upbringing
  • right to pass property to a child via gift or inheritance, and
  • right to a child’s earnings and to inherit from child in the event of death.

Parents can share these rights, although divorced or separated parents may have limitations placed on their legal rights over a child. For example, in some cases, a judge will grant legal or physical custody to only one parent.

What are a Parent’s Legal Responsibilities to a Child?

A parent must meet a child’s basic needs and parent in a way that serves the child’s best interests. Parents also have a financial duty to support their children, which typically continues until each child reaches the age of 18 or graduates from high school. In most cases, a parent doesn’t have a financial responsibility to a child over 18, unless the child has special needs.

A parent must serve a child’s emotional and physical needs and protect the child from abuse from the other parent or another household member. Additionally, parents must meet their children's basic needs for food, clothing, housing, medical care, and education.

Can a Court Change My Rights and Responsibilities?

Sometimes, a court may alter a parent’s rights and responsibilities to a child. For example, if the child’s parents are divorcing, a judge will make specific orders about custody, visitation, and child support payments. In some cases, a judge will order a custody evaluation to determine if one parent should have more custody or legal responsibility over a child. Even if one parent is obligated to pay child support, both parents still have an ongoing duty to support their child. Finally, a custody order may give both parents legal rights over a child, but can grant the custodial parent the final say if the parents can’t agree.

Under certain circumstances, courts can limit parental rights, for example, by ordering supervised visitation,which means that a neutral third party supervises all visits between the parent and child. Parents don’t usually lose all parental rights, except in the most extreme cases of abuse or neglect. When a court permanently terminates a parent’s rights, the parent’s financial responsibilities over the child are also terminated. If you have questions or concerns about your parental rights and responsibilities, ask a local family law attorney for advice.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My child’s other parent is abusive. Can I have my ex’s parental rights terminated?
  • I have remarried and want my new spouse to adopt my child, but my ex won’t agree to the adoption. Is there anything I can do?
  • My child’s other parent and I share joint legal and physical custody of our child. What if we can’t agree on whether our child should be home schooled or attend public school? Can I just enroll my child in the local public school without my ex’s approval?

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