How do unwed fathers establish paternity and get custody rights?

Photo of attorney Melinda L. Singer

When a child is born, the baby’s mother automatically has parental and custodial rights — but things aren’t the same for unwed fathers.

Unfortunately, many unwed fathers don’t realize that they can obtain custody and parenting time rights to their children. The process can start either after the child’s birth by consent or through formal action later.

Consent or DNA testing: Understanding your options

The simplest way to establish paternity is by completing a Certificate of Parentage.

As long as the mother is not legally married to anybody else and she and the man in question agree that he is the child’s father, paternity can be established by mutual consent. This can be done either at the hospital when the child is born through a birth certificate coordinator, or at a later date through the local registrar’s office or county welfare department.

Sometimes, however, there are questions surrounding a child’s true paternity. The mother may not be certain who fathered her child, or the alleged father may harbor doubts. In those situations, genetic testing (DNA testing) can be used to provide clarity and a paternity action can be initiated in court.

The purpose of establishing paternity

Without legally established paternity, unwed fathers have no custody or parenting time rights with their child other than what the child’s mother is willing to give them. Even if they’re paying support, the mother can deny or withdraw access to the child at any time.

The unwed father also would have no legal right to make any decisions about the child’s welfare, including things like their medical care, religious upbringing or education. Plus, without established paternity, the child lacks any inheritance rights. If anything happens to the father, they could be cut off from important social safety nets like Social Security survivor’s benefits.

That all changes once paternity is formally established, after which a father can petition the court for custody and parenting time rights like any other parent.

Don’t miss your opportunity to establish a firm, legal bond with your child. A paternity action protects your relationship far into the future.

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