Child custody matters are often discussed in the context of a parents’ divorce. However, today an increasing number of U.S. children are born to unwed mothers with the Centers for Control and Disease Prevention estimating that during 2013, 41 percent of babies were born to mothers who were not married.
In the eyes of the law, an unwed mother who gives birth is automatically awarded sole legal and physical custody of the baby. This is true regardless of whether or not the baby’s father is in a committed relationship with the mother or has plans to be part of the child’s life. In order for an unwed father to have any legally recognized parenting rights to a child, steps must be taken to establish paternity.
In cases where both parents are in agreement about the father’s paternity, they can voluntarily sign and file a “Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity” with the court. In cases where one parent disputes paternity, either party can file a petition for a child support order. If necessary, a DNA test may be preformed to confirm paternity.
Unwed parents who fail to establish paternity are doing both themselves and their child a disservice. Taking the appropriate legal steps to identify oneself as a child’s father is especially important for a father who would otherwise have no legal rights to petition for child custody or visitation. Additionally, barring a paternity confirmation, a child’s mother is not able to file a petition for child support.
Child custody disputes are often highly emotional and may become contentious. It’s always wise, therefore, to seek the advice and assistance of an attorney when dealing with matters including paternity, child custody and child support.
Source: Pennsylvania Child Welfare Resource Center, “Establishing Paternity,” March 27, 2015