Some dads feel like they get the short end of the stick when it comes to parental rights, but today, state laws specify that courts can't consider gender as a factor, so both parents have an equal chance at getting custody
Unmarried Father’s Rights
Historically, unmarried fathers had few parental rights--a birthmother could fairly easily prevent a biological dad from establishing a legal relationship with his child. Times have changed though, and today, fathers have several ways to assert paternity.
Paternity is essentially a legal determination of a child’s biological father. You can establish paternity by filing an “acknowledgment” with the state vital records department. Both parents have to sign the acknowledgment to make it valid.
If the child’s mother objects to your paternity claim, you can establish paternity by filing a paternity suit with your local court. In a paternity case, a judge will determine whether you are the child's biological father. A court will order a blood or DNA test to settle the matter. Judges can also decide visitation and custody as part of a paternity suit.
Establishing Custody Rights as a Father
A court will presume that you’re the father if you and the child’s mother were married when the child was born. If you were unmarried at the child’s birth, but have established paternity, you can seek custody rights to your child. Legal custody gives a parent authority to make decisions about things that affect the child's welfare, including education, medical care, and religious upbringing. Physical custody refers to the child’s living arrangements. Mothers don’t have any extra entitlement to custody of their children: As a dad, you're on equal legal footing.
You and the child’s mother can work out your own parenting agreement, and submit it to the court for approval. When parents can’t agree, a judge will look at many factors to determine which custody arrangement will serve a child’s best interests. Sometimes, in very difficult cases, a judge will order a custody evaluation. Involved fathers are much more likely to get substantial custody and visitation rights than deadbeat dads. In Utah for example, judges consider several factors that reflect each person's ability to be a fit parent, including:
- physical and emotional health
- bond with the child
- ability to meet the child’s emotional and physical needs, and
- involvement in the child’s life.
If you’re disappointed with the results of your custody case or the custody evaluator’s report, you may have grounds to challenge the decision. However, custody cases can be very complicated and it’s important to get a local family law attorney’s advice.
Visitation Rights as a Father
Parents have a fundamental right to raise and love their own children. Even if you don't get primary custody, you’re still entitled to visit your child on a regular basis. But there are some instances where a court will restrict parental rights. For example, if there's a history of domestic violence, neglect, or abuse, a judge will order supervised visitation with the child. In extreme cases of abuse or neglect, a judge might find that cutting off all contact and terminating parental rights would be in the child's best interests.
You and the child’s mother can reach your own visitation agreement, or you can leave it up to the court to decide. Either way, a judge will turn the parenting schedule into a custody and visitation order, which you and the child’s other parent must follow. For example, the child’s mother can’t prevent your visits or give you less time than required under the order. Your obligation as a father is to follow the terms of any custody order, and take advantage of whatever visitation or custody you’re entitled to. If you encounter serious problems with visitation or the child’s mother prevents visits, you can ask the court to intervene. A parent who refuses to abide by a custody order can be held in contempt of court and can face fines or even jail time.
In most cases, a court will order the noncustodial parent to pay child support to the custodial parent, and custodial fathers have the same right to child support as custodial mothers. Child support payments are intended to help cover the child's expenses, including food, clothing, and shelter. Your specific child support amount will depend on several factors like each parent’s income and ability to pay, the custody schedule, and the child’s financial needs. Similar to a custody order, parents must obey a child support order--even if the custodial parent is interfering with visitation. You can't simply stop paying support to deal with custody issues: If you fail to pay child support, a judge can fine you and even send you to jail. If your child's parent is keeping you from visiting with your child, don't take matters into your own hands, go back to court for help or find a local family law attorney.
What are My Rights if the Child’s Mother Remarries?
As a biological parent, your custody rights generally supersede the rights of any other individuals, such as a stepparent. If the child’s mother remarries, and the stepfather wants to adopt your child, think carefully before you agree. In most cases, an adoption will completely terminate your parental rights. Any previous, court-ordered visitation will no longer be in effect. Even if the mother and stepfather allow you to visit your child, they will have no legal obligation to do so and can prevent visits at any time.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I truly believed I fathered my girlfriend's child, acknowledged paternity, and I married her. Now that I've found out he's not my child, I want a divorce. Can I get custody of a child I've raised as my own?
- How can I get more time with my children?
- What can I do if my child’s mother is preventing visits?
- My child's mother has custody, but she wants him to move in with me. Do I need to keep paying child support after my child moves in?