You and your partner have welcomed a sweet little baby into the world. You’re busy changing diapers and arranging schedules and figuring out the ins and outs of daily life that all new parents face.
In the middle of the hustle and bustle and sleep deprivation, probably the last thing on your mind is the thought that the two of you might split up someday.
You haven’t married, but that’s not really necessary nowadays, right? When it was just the two of you, probably not. But now that you have a little one, it’s important to know what happens when unmarried parents split up and what the paternity laws are both at the federal level and in your state.
Establishing Paternity Rights: Taking Care of Business
In most states, when parents break up, the mother is presumed to have the primary (natural) right to custody of children born when she isn’t married (Clarke). In fact, the court often gives sole physical and legal custody to the mother (Saukas).
A biological father who has established legal paternity has substantially more say over custody and care of a child than one who has not.
If an unmarried father hasn’t yet made his paternity legal, he should do so immediately by signing a voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity Affidavit and take steps to have his name added to the child’s birth certificate.
You can find out how to do this where you live by visiting the National Center for Health Statistics and clicking on your state.
Paternity in Question: Not Sure You’re the Father?
If the father has any doubts about whether or not he is the biological father of the child, he may want to request a legal paternity test. He should make sure to do so before signing the Acknowledgement of Paternity Affidavit and/or being listed on the birth certificate.
If the mother doesn’t agree to a paternity test, she may be compelled to do so by the courts. Once a man signs the affidavit or birth certificate, he may be liable for child support until the child is an adult, even if a later paternity test shows he is not the father (Padawer).
In many states, there is a fairly short statute of limitations for challenging paternity. This is generally done to protect the child’s right to be supported by the people they consider parents. Keep in mind that if a man is named on the birth certificate but later wants to change his legal status in regards to the child, he may have as little as two years to do it. It is wise to be aware of individual state laws regarding deadlines for establishing or disputing paternity.
Are Paternity Rights for Unmarried Fathers Constitutional?
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Supreme Court has recently affirmed a series of adoption cases involving the constitutional protections afforded to unmarried fathers. These protections came under the 14th amendment. But this does not mean this protection will be afforded in every case, especially if legal paternity has not been established. In those cases, states still very much have the last word.
The Bottom Line
Parents splitting up is hard on everyone involved, whether they’re married or not, but the consequences can be especially tough for unmarried couples. Getting informed and taking proactive steps now to protect future relationships with a child is the wise thing to do. If you are unsure about what to do or what the laws are in your state, you may want to consider hiring a family-law attorney or other type of legal resource in your area. When the ongoing connection with your child is at stake, paying a few legal fees is a small price for what is essentially a priceless relationship.
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Clarke, Peter. “Child Custody Laws between Unmarried Parents.” Child Custody Laws between Unmarried Parents. Legal Match, 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. <http://www.legalmatch.com/law-library/article/child-custody-between-unmarried-parents.html>.
Padawer, Ruth. “Who Knew I Was Not the Father?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 21 Nov. 2009. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/22/magazine/22Paternity-t.html?pagewanted=all>.
Saukas, Gail. “Married vs. Not: The Difference It Makes in a Custody Battle.”WOTV4womencom. WOOD Television, LLC, 30 Apr. 2015. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. <http://wotv4women.com/2015/04/30/married-vs-not-the-difference-in-makes-in-a-custody-battle/>.
“State Statutes Search.” – Child Welfare Information Gateway. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. <http://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/laws-policies/state/?hasBeenRedirected=1>.
“The Rights of Unmarried Fathers.” – Child Welfare Information Gateway. Department of Health and Human Services, Jan. 2014. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. <http://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/laws-policies/statutes/putative/>.
“Where to Write for Vital Records.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 Sept. 2015. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/w2w.htm>.