Unmarried parents and child custody

U.S. society is more tolerant of relationships outside of marriage than in the past. In the modern era, it is more and more common to see children born out of wedlock.

In fact, according to Child Trends, in 2016 approximately 40% of births fell into this category. It makes sense then that there are many unmarried parents who wonder about how child custody works for them.

Paternity status matters

When married couples have a baby, there is automatically a presumption that the male spouse is the father. However, this does not happen for unwedded partners. Instead, the mother receives full custody immediately. The father may gain equal rights by signing the birth certificate or a document claiming paternity.

If the father does not sign such a document, he has no rights unless he or the female spouse petitions the court for a genetic test. Upon the establishment that he is the biological father, he may pursue parental rights unless he signs them away. The mother may also seek child support from him.

Unmarried parents undergo the same processes

Once there is legal confirmation of paternity, both parents have equal rights with regard to their child regardless of marital status. The courts determine custody based on numerous factors, such as which parent is more likely to provide a stable upbringing. They use these considerations to decide what custody arrangement is in the best interests of the child.

Unmarried parents may worry about their parental rights, especially fathers. However, the law provides methods like paternity testing to allow fathers to establish their biological relationship and receive the same rights as married parents.


FindLaw Network