Child Custody Basic Child Custody & Support Law for Unmarried Parents

Children born to unmarried parents create a host of child custody and child support issues. While the identity of the mother is usually obvious, it's not always as clear when it comes to the father. Family law governs and provides guidance. Questions of child support and custody /visitation rights are matters to be dealt with and answered in court.

The Mother's Child Custody Right is Inherent

The law takes into account the fact that the mother is the only parent necessary to be present at a child's birth. This makes maternity a simple matter. When parents are married, an assumption is made that the husband is the father. In unmarried relationships, paternity may be a matter left to be proven in court. As a result, in most states a mother is automatically granted full legal custody and physical custody of the child at birth. The mother can make all the decisions concerning the child by herself, such as where the child will live and how the child is to be raised. A father typically has no rights until he makes an effort to establish his connection to the child as a parent.

Acknowledging Paternity is the First Step

Without making an effort to acknowledge or establish paternity, a father has no rights with regard to a child he may have fathered. Around the time of childbirth, a father may voluntarily acknowledge his paternity by signing a legal document to that effect. Some states require the mother to also formally acknowledge the father.

It some instances, a man may need to prove paternity by petitioning a court to have a judge order a paternity test in order to test for his fatherhood. A positive match will result in the court issuing a decree (an "order of filiation") which legally names the petitioner as the father of the child.

Most states have paternity registries (also known as "putative father registries") where a man can formally acknowledge his paternity (or suspected paternity) of a child. Proof of fatherhood is not necessary at this point. If at a later date the child is put up for adoption by the mother, the man registered as the suspected father will be notified. He can then take a paternity test to establish his fatherhood and take further steps to obtain custody of the child.

Child Support Payments Mandatory after Paternity

Until paternity is established either by a voluntarily acknowledgement or pursuant to a court order, an unmarried man is not required to make any support payments to the mother. After paternity is established, a father is financially responsible to support his child as if he was married to the mother. If the parents are unable to agree to an amount of support payments amicably, the mother may petition a court to enforce the amount set by law. Each state has specific laws and guidelines used in calculating the amount of support payments for the care of the child. While the father's income is usually the most important factor, the judge may have some discretion to make appropriate adjustments to the actual payment amount.

Other Rights and Responsibility of Unmarried Parents

The rights and responsibilities of unmarried parents may be more complex than in typical family law matters. While this article discusses the law generally, answers to questions are specific to the unique set of facts and circumstances of your case. An experienced family law attorney is the best way to obtain an accurate understanding as to your actual rights and responsibilities if you are an unmarried parent of a child.
Divorce & Family Law
Child Support Law
About author
Michael Wechsler
Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of, A. Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.


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Michael Wechsler
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