How to File for Visitation Rights as a New Dad

What to Do After Your Baby is Born

Father and baby daughter playing outdoors
Learn how to file for visitation so you can enjoy time with your baby. Camille Tokerud/Stone/Getty Images

As a new dad, you may be assuming that you’ll get plenty of time to bond with your little one. But if you don’t have a good working relationship with your ex, it can be complicated. Here’s how to file for visitation rights as a new father:

Path 1: Collaborate with Your Ex

You may not need to establish a formal visitation order through the courts right away if you already have a good relationship with your ex.

It’s important to talk about the issue before your baby is born, to ensure that you’re both on the same page about questions like:

  • Will someone contact me when you’re labor?
  • Can I be there for the birth?
  • Will we be signing paternity papers at the hospital?
  • After you’re released, do I need to call first before visiting?
  • How often can I come by, and for how long?
  • Are there any restrictions I should anticipate?
  • How can we work together to make this easier for both of us?

Ideally, you’ll both agree that you should absolutely be there at the hospital and that you’ll work together to establish a regular visitation schedule moving forward. However, getting to that point isn’t always smooth. If your ex is unwilling to work with you to create a visitation plan, then you may need to move on to another option.

Path 2: How to File for Visitation Rights in Court

Formally establishing your parental rights can take some time, especially for new, unmarried fathers.

In fact, most states presume that an unmarried mother has primary custody whether she files for child custody in court or not. And that means that new dads need to be proactive about filing for visitation rights. Here’s what to do if your ex is being uncooperative, and the only to see your baby is to go through the court system:

  1. Establish paternity. The is the first thing you'll need to do. If your name is on the birth certificate, that may be sufficient proof of paternity for the state. If not, you'll want to request paternity testing to verify your biological relationship with your son. You can do this by contacting your local family court or Child Support Agency.
  2. Pay child support. This may be a sensitive issue. And it’s important to note that child support and visitation are actually two separate issues in court, so you don’t lose visitation rights when you miss payments. However, you should know up front that the act of formally establishing paternity will trigger the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) to initiate the process, and the state will expect you to begin to make child support payments right away—even before they address the issue of visitation.
  3. File for visitation. In most states, you will need to file for visitation formally with the family court's child custody division. It will also be helpful to learn about the child custody laws in your state. Once you're ready to actually file the motion, you should also meet with a lawyer, at least for an initial consultation. If you decide to proceed on your own, talk with the court clerk about filing "pro se," which means representing yourself.
  1. Consider mediation. Depending on where you live, the state may require you and your ex-girlfriend to attend mediation sessions through the court, in an attempt to reach a mutual agreement about visitation and custody. This can be extremely helpful in reducing tension and conflict so you can establish a better working relationship with your ex.
  2. Create a parenting plan. Some states also require you to file a parenting plan with the courts. This document would include the details of your visitation schedule, as well as the arrangements you both agree to, regarding holidays, overnights, school vs. summer schedules, and more.

Finding the Best Routine for Baby Visits 

Whether you establish an initial visitation plan with your ex or you formally file for visitation rights with the state, try to aim for frequent, short visits initially.

If possible, try to work the timing around your baby’s nap schedule so you can maximize the bonding time. And don’t worry if your ex is breastfeeding—your baby will learn your voice, your smell, and your presence even if you don’t get to feed him or her for the first year. Remember, too, that your visitation schedule will likely change as your baby grows older and you transition to longer but less frequent visits. Throughout the process, stay focused on building a lifelong relationship with your baby, and soak up as much bonding time as you can during the first few months of life.