Unwed Father’s Rights

The legal system can be tough to navigate for unmarried dads

We’re seeing more and more unwed fathers who want to be a part of their children’s lives, but because of their unmarried status they have a difficult time asserting their rights in the legal system.

While this list of important things unwed fathers need to know, by divorce attorney Yvette Harrell, is by no means comprehensive, it will help you understand some of the most common situations you may encounter.

  1. Signing the birth certificate for your child does NOT mean that you have asserted your rights as a father. Only a court can adjudicate (confirm) paternity. Without a court order, the father of the child does not legally have any rights to the child (although there is still an obligation to support the child). Dad needs to file an action to establish paternity in order to have the court recognize him as the child’s father and confirm his rights related to that relationship.
  2. If the mother of your child applies for any type of assistance from the government (i.e. “food stamps,” Medicaid, etc.), the state will initiate a child support action against you, regardless of whether she wants to pursue it or not. Many men are surprised to find that the state can initiate an action against dad for child support, even if mom does not ask for the state’s help. The application for government assistance requires that mom disclose dad’s identity. If she refuses to do so, or is dishonest about her knowledge, her application can be denied without further review. Once the state knows dad’s identity, it will initiate an action against dad to ensure that he is providing support for the child as well.
  3. Almost all couples who become litigants in a child support or custody action initially had some sort of “understanding” or “agreement” between them. Agreements are only as good as the will of parties who created them. While it is great that you BELIEVE that your relationship with your child’s mother is such that there is no need for a court to intervene, it is likely that the relationship will not always be pleasant and amicable. The best option for dad is to file a petition to establish his rights and obligations as the father of the child. Otherwise, dad’s ability to spend time with his child will be subject to how mom feels at that moment – good, bad, or indifferent.
  4. You CAN receive credit for support if you are able to PROVE financial support of your child even before the court order has been issued. There is a common myth that dad will not be given credit for any child support provided before a court order. This is simply not true. With proper documentation (receipts, money orders, etc.) and organization, the court will be more likely to accept that support and give the credit to the father. Conversely, after an order of support has been issued, any support dad provides in a manner different than what the order requires, or in addition to what the order requires, can (and probably will) be viewed by the court as being “gifts.”
  5. Child support has nothing to do with rights to spend time with a child and vice versa. Dad’s obligation to pay child support has NOTHING to do with his rights to spend time with his child. In fact, as indicated above, dad could be ordered to pay child support without the court ever considering his rights to spend time with his child. There are some men paying child support who have no legal rights to their children. Dad’s payment of child support does NOT automatically give him timesharing (visitation) rights. Those rights must be specifically granted by the court.

Educating yourself, and retaining a knowledgeable family law attorney, are keys to success in these types of complex court cases. You DO have rights as a father, and it’s important to know how to protect them!