The statistical shift toward more unwed fathers is unmistakable. In the United States today, 40% of all children born are born to unmarried parents. That figure was 18.4% in 2007. [Source: Centers for Disease Control] Accordingly, the number of unwed fathers is growing at an alarming pace.
We have all seen the statistics about the growing social problems that come from a child growing up without a father.
In many cases, the unwed father and the mother are a committed but unmarried couple. But in far too many circumstances, the child will grow up without her father in the child's home. And most unwed fathers probably don't know enough about their father's rights under the law.
If you find yourself, intentionally or unintentionally, as an unwed father, there are some things you need to know and do as you prepare to take on your role as a father who is not married to his child's mother.
Fathers need to establish paternity.
In family law across the United States, if a married couple has a baby, the legal presumption is that the husband in that family is the father of the baby. But when a child is born outside of marriage, there is no legal presumption of paternity. Without establishing paternity, an unwed father has no legal standing as it relates to visitation, shared custody or the ability to make decisions about the welfare of the child.
The simplest way to establish paternity is to make sure that the unwed father's name is on the baby's birth certificate. Being with the mother at the hospital when the baby is born and helping her fill out the birth certificate forms is the least complicated way. If that is not possible, an unwed father can complete a Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity form in your state.
If the mother contests the father's paternity, he can contact a government agency like the Child Support Enforcement Division in his state or he can petition a court to establish his paternity. The unwed father will need to take a paternity test (for which a court may order the mother's cooperation) to establish his parental status.
In many states, legislation has created putative father registries where a man can acknowledge his paternity and then be notified of any legal proceedings concerning the child including proposals to change custody, to place the child for adoption or other such legal issues. If the father's state has a registry, he should get on it immediately after he becomes aware of the mother's pregnancy.
Gaining custody rights
Once an unwed father establishes paternity, he needs to work to determine his custody status. A man who is legally designated as the father has the same custody rights as a married father. If the unwed father and mother are raising the child together in the same home, custody is not an issue. But if at any time they separate, or if they are not intending to raise the child together, the father will need to petition a court to establish custody rights.
Fathers are generally at a disadvantage in a custody process because government agencies and family court judges usually start with the presumption that a child should be with his or her mother unless her custody would be detrimental to the child. So fathers who want custody of the child need to retain a family law attorney and start the legal process to establish custody.
In most cases, unless the mother is clearly unfit, the father will want to petition for joint or shared custody or he may want to allow the mother to have full custody with him only having visitation rights. If the mother is unfit to have custody of the child, he will want to petition for full legal custody.
Before a court determines legal custody for the child, the parents should get together and establish a parenting plan that defines roles and responsibilities.
When this can be done in a friendly way between the parents, the courts likely to approve the plan they create.
Paying child support
Men who are fathers, regardless of their custody status, have financial responsibility for a child. The only way to avoid child support is for a father to have his paternity rights terminated which forever severs him from his child. If a father and mother are raising the child together, financial support happens informally. But if the parents separate, child support will become a formal legal obligation.
Child support is determined based on a number of factors including the parents' individual income levels and obligations, availability of other financial support, and the needs of the children. Each case is individual and the amounts of child support needed will be individually determined. But once child support is set by the courts, it becomes a primary financial obligation which can be enforced by government agencies. And whether or not the father has cooperation from the mother on things like visitation, child support obligations remain.
Unwed fathers have rights and responsibilities like any other fathers do. But given the lack of a legal marriage between the parents, establishing those rights and enforcing those obligations become infinitely more complicated. Men who find themselves as unwed parents, whether intentionally or not, need to take appropriate steps to ensure their parental rights and to meet their parental obligations. It is not a matter to be taken lightly when the well-being of a child is stake.