Woman holding babyIn many states, the biological fathers of children born to unmarried parents have few or no rights unless they take legal steps to ask for them. The law usually assumes that a man is a child’s father only if he was married to the mother when the child was born. Otherwise, he must prove that he is the father before the court will recognize his relationship to the child.

Mothers Have Automatic Custody

There is rarely any doubt about the identity of a child’s mother, especially when she gives birth in a hospital. Laws vary a bit from state to state but, in most cases, the mother has full legal and physical custody from the time the child is born. Legal custody means a single mother can make all decisions on the child’s behalf and physical custody means the child lives with her. Unless an unmarried father takes steps to establish his parentage of the child, he usually can’t dispute these custodial rights.

Fathers Must Establish Paternity

The father of a child born out of wedlock must take two legal actions to establish his paternal rights. First, he must prove that he’s the biological father. Then, he must ask the court to grant him visitation rights or custody. A man can acknowledge paternity by signing an acknowledgment at the time of the baby’s birth or shortly afterward.

Some states require the mother to sign the acknowledgment as well. The father’s other option is to petition the court to have a judge order a paternity test. If the test is positive, the court will issue an order of “filiation” naming the petitioner as the father.

An Unmarried Father Must Pay Child Support

After a court has established paternity or a man has acknowledged it, the father has the same responsibility to support the child financially as he would if he were married to the child’s mother. Once paternity is established, the mother can ask the court to order the father to pay child support. The amount of child support to be paid usually depends on the father’s income and guidelines established by state law. However, the judge has some discretion to adjust the amount depending on the circumstances of the case.

Fathers Have Certain Custody Rights

If a man believes he is the father of a woman’s child, most states have registries in which he can officially state his suspicion. He doesn’t have to acknowledge or prove paternity to register. If the mother puts the child up for adoption, the state will notify the man. He can then take a paternity test and, if the result is positive, he can take steps to gain custody of the child himself.

A Family Law Lawyer Can Help

The law surrounding the rights and responsibilities of unmarried parents is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a family law attorney.