Dads often face an uphill battle when it comes to family law issues. The situation is even tougher for unmarried fathers.
A recent case in point comes from Wisconsin. Nearly six months ago, James Wolfe’s son was snatched away from him by the toddler’s mother, who disappeared with the child to Georgia without Wolfe’s permission. Wolfe is an unmarried father, and although his name is listed on the child’s birth certificate, that’s not enough to prove paternity in Wisconsin.
According to Wolfe’s attorney, Cordell & Cordell divorce lawyer Chelsea Williamson, the court would typically order a DNA test, but in this case that is impossible since there is no way of tracking down the child.
Wolfe, who is a truck driver, has racked up more than $30,000 on lawyers, process servers, and private detectives attempting to gain custody.
“It’s very concerning they make it that difficult for someone who has been there since the beginning, who co-parented,” Williamson said. “People need to know if you have a child out of wedlock that you need to get your legal rights established. Having your name on a birth certificate isn’t always enough.”
In the United States, 40 percent of children are born to unmarried parents, but state laws are often not specific about the rights of unmarried fathers.
If you’re an unmarried dad, there are some important things you need to know to make sure you protect your parental rights and stay involved in your children’s lives.
There is no legal presumption of paternity
When married couples have a child, it is legally presumed that the husband is the father. However, for unmarried fathers like Wolfe, there is no legal presumption of paternity.
Without establishing paternity, a father has no right to visitation or decisions regarding the child’s welfare.
“An unwed father is left at the mercy of the mother of the child until paternity is established,” said Cordell & Cordell Principal Partner Joe Cordell. “If you are an unmarried dad who is certain you are the biological father, then you must be proactive and establish paternity to assert your legal rights.”
- Get on the birth certificate (although as we’ve seen, that is not always enough).
- Get an order through an administrative agency.
- Get a court order.
An application for government assistance initiates child support
The application for government assistance – such as food stamps, Medicaid, etc. – requires that the mother disclose the father’s identity. Refusing to do so can cause her application to be denied without further review.
Once his identity is known, the state will typically initiate an action against the father, regardless of whether or not the mother wants to do so, to ensure he’s providing support for the child.
This can create a host of other issues for the father, depending on his financial status. The child support system’s overemphasis on collecting payments results in a mechanism that is particularly harsh on low-income parents. It is frighteningly easy for parents to rack up child support arrears, which can then result in contempt charges.
Without establishing paternity, you risk losing your child to the adoption system
Although unmarried birth dads are gaining more rights in the adoption process, it is still their responsibility to prove paternity or else it’s possible for the mother to give the child up for adoption without the father’s permission.
It’s stunningly easy for mothers to commit paternity fraud by lying about who the biological father of their child is, and if a dad doesn’t realize he has fathered a child then he is at risk of losing his child to the adoption system without even realizing it.
That’s nearly exactly what happened in the case of Christopher Emanuel.
Some states, such as Utah, even have fraud immunity statutes that prevent adoptions from being overturned in cases where the mother lied.