It’s not uncommon for fathers to feel disadvantaged in family court proceedings, especially when it comes to securing custody rights over their children. Family courts in the US have traditionally sided with mothers due to the long-standing belief that mothers are inherently better caregivers, while fathers are more suited to earning money for their children. These stereotypes are starting to fade from public consciousness, and courts across the country are acknowledging the fact that fathers are just as capable parents as mothers. However, this does not change the fact that many fathers feel isolated and uncertain about their legal options when it comes to child custody determinations.

Unwed fathers, in particular, face many challenges in the family court system. When a child is born to a wed mother, their spouse is the presumptive father. However, when a child is born to unmarried parents, paternity must be established as soon as possible, so everyone involved knows their rights and responsibilities.

Why is Proving Paternity So Important?

Establishing paternity is crucial if a presumptive father has any reason to doubt they are indeed the father of the child in question. Paternity tests are usually swift and straightforward, so it is best for any presumptive father in this type of situation to establish paternity as soon as possible. For example, if a man and woman are dating and the woman becomes pregnant, but the man believes that he is not actually the father of the child, proving paternity is essential. Otherwise, the man could become financially liable for a child who isn’t actually his.

While some presumptive fathers may need to establish paternity to prove they are not financially responsible for a child, others are keen to prove paternity so they can claim their parental rights over their children. When unmarried parents raise a child together in the same household, there is usually no issue, and the father has the same parental rights as a married father. However, if the couple separates, then the father will need to file a claim for custody.

How Is Child Custody Determined?

Every family court in the US has a legal duty to rule in favor of the best interests of any child involved in a child custody determination. An unmarried father has the same right to pursue custody as a married father, and they should know what to expect from the proceedings they face. The court must determine child custody based on the child’s best interests, and this may involve joint custody shared by both parents or sole custody awarded to one parent.

If you are an unmarried father who desires custody rights over your child, you need to be realistic about your situation and determine what type of custody arrangement best suits your preferences and your child’s best interests. For example, if you believe your child’s mother is an unfit parent for any reason, you will want to fight for sole custody of your child, and you would need to offer clear evidence of the mother’s unfitness. If the mother is a fit and able parent, then pursuing joint custody is more reasonable.

Working With Your Coparent

The family courts of the US generally uphold that a child is best served when they have equal access to two parents. If your relationship with your child’s mother has deteriorated, you both still have responsibilities as parents that demand your attention. It’s worth trying to work out a parenting plan with your child’s mother and reach mutually agreeable custody terms with them. If the two of you cannot reach an agreement, then you should prepare for a formal child custody determination. However, if the two of you do successfully develop a parenting plan, remember that a family court judge must review and approve it, and it is likely they will require some adjustments to the plan you and your coparent developed privately.

Child Custody and Child Support

Parents bear financial responsibility for their children. When unmarried parents raise their children together, their support obligations are informal. However, once they separate, they need to have a legal child support order in place that establishes each parent’s child support obligation. Every state uses different methods for calculating each parent’s support obligation, but the amount required generally reflects the cost of living in the area, the incomes of both parents, and the child’s needs.

Child support typically hinges on child custody. When one parent has greater custody rights than the other, the noncustodial parent will pay child support to the custodial parent. If you are an unmarried father seeking custody of your child, you may wonder whether you will need to pay child support if you obtain custody rights. If you and your child’s mother obtain equal custody rights, then whichever parent earns more money will likely pay child support to the other. Ultimately, the court wants to ensure that both parents contribute equally to the financial side of raising a child, and one parent will wind up paying child support to the other. The only potential exception would be in the event both parents obtain exactly equal custody rights and earn the exact same amount of income.

How to Change Your Child Custody Order

Many parents obtain child custody orders but later experience changes in their lives that materially alter the circumstances of their existing custody orders. Family law allows for a streamlined method of altering an existing family court order through the modification process. Put simply, the party that desires a modification to custody and/or support order files a petition with the family court outlining the desired change. The court sets a hearing date, and the parties involved in the order in question will have the opportunity to make their arguments.

The modification process is usually straightforward, but it is still best to have legal representation on your side if you intend to explore this option for securing greater custody rights over your child. However, the best way to ensure you obtain the parental rights you want is to start working with an attorney as soon as possible once you realize the custody is going to become a major issue in the near future. If you are an unwed father and want to be sure you obtain reasonable custody rights for your situation, it’s best to contact an experienced family law attorney as soon as possible to start building your case for custody.