Men often face an uphill battle in family courts because of antiquated gender stereotypes, but that hill is even steeper for unwed fathers seeking custody of their children.
Over the last 50 years, the number of children born to unmarried parents has exploded. Since 1960, the share of births to unmarried women has risen from 5% to more than 40%, according to a Pew Research Center nationwide survey.
If you are an unwed father wanting custody of your children, here is what you should know.
The most important step to obtaining custody is establishing paternity.
When a child is born during a marriage, it is presumed that the husband is the father. There is no presumption when the child is born out of wedlock. Until an unmarried father establishes paternity, he has no rights to custody.
There are three ways you can establish paternity.
1. Get your name on the birth certificate.
The easiest way to establish paternity is by getting your name on the birth certificate. However, this is occasionally difficult as women sometimes refuse to give the father’s name at the time of birth. There are also Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity forms available for fathers to sign at the hospital when the child is born.
If you are unable to get your name on the birth certificate or don’t sign the VAP, you can contact the Department of Records in your state for information on how to fill out the form on your own.
2. Get an order through an administrative agency.
Administrative agencies, such as Child Support Enforcement, can help you through the early stages of your paternity action by assisting you with filling out forms and obtaining a DNA test to prove you are the father.
3. Get a court order.
This might be the most effective way to establish paternity, because it can also help you obtain visitation rights. To do this, you need to file a petition for paternity and child custody with your local family court. The court then will order a paternity test or look to see if you are listed on the birth certificate.
Typically, a court order will include a parenting plan that outlines custody, visitation and other aspects involved in raising the child.
The fight for custody.
While paternity proves you are the father, it does not automatically lead to custody or visitation rights. (Although it does put you on the hook for child support.) Many factors come into play when an unwed father is fighting to gain child custody.
Unmarried fathers often come into the picture well after the child’s birth, in which case it is highly doubtful that a court will simply switch the custody to a parent that has no bond with the child.
Although the reasons you haven’t been involved in the child’s life might have been outside of your control, the court uses a “best interest of the child” standard when determining custody and it will not benefit the child emotionally or physically to experience such a sudden and drastic change to their living environment.
Some states have parenting time guidelines for introducing a new parent into a child’s life. The court will work to introduce you into your child’s life by using certain guidelines based on the child’s age, development and stage of the relationship with each parent.
You can still make a case that you deserve custody, but be prepared for it to take a while. Once you have established paternity and visitation rights, use your time with the child to establish a bond. Then you need to go about showing that it is in your child’s best interest for you to be the custodial parent.
If you feel your child is facing abuse or potential harm while in the mother’s care, you can petition for a protective order on behalf of the child. Upon filing of a petition with the court, changes can be made to an existing custody order.