Unmarried Parents and Child Custody

When parents aren't married to each other, they have the same parental rights and responsibilities as married parents. However, the father's typically aren't official until a court issues custody orders.

Custody orders often include a parenting plan that explains your legal and physical custody arrangements through parenting provisions and a parenting time schedule. Child support can be addressed as part of your custody orders or in a separate court order.

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Who has custody of a child when the parents aren't married?

In many states, an unmarried mother is automatically her child's sole legal and physical guardian until the court issues orders otherwise. This doesn't mean the father has no parental rights — it simply means the court can't enforce the father's rights until he obtains custody orders. (See next section for more on paternity.)

The legal process for unmarried parents to get custody orders varies by state. Be sure to familiarize yourself with your state's custody laws and family court procedures.

Essentially, either parent can file a custody case. If you agree on a parenting plan, you can then ask the court to turn it into a custody order. If you disagree, your case is contested, and your court will likely refer you to mediation. If you can't reach an agreement even after mediation, you'll go to trial so a judge can decide your custody arrangements.

When approving parenting plan agreements, deciding disputed cases and issuing child support orders, courts do not consider parents' genders. Courts prioritize the child's best interests and seek to have the child spend adequate time with each parent.

Unmarried fathers and paternity

In all states, confirmation of paternity is required for the courts to issue custody or child support orders for unmarried parents. This is because the law doesn't assume paternity when an unmarried woman gives birth. On the other hand, when a woman married to a man gives birth, the law assumes her husband is the father.

Legal confirmation of paternity obligates the father to pay child support, regardless of the custody and visitation arrangements.

Confirming paternity

In some states, having both unmarried parents sign the child's birth certificate is sufficient paternity confirmation. In others, parents must complete their court's affidavit (legal form) in front of a notary to verify the child's parentage.

When paternity is in question, DNA testing is necessary. Parents can use a certified private lab or, in some places, their state's child support enforcement agency.

When a parent refuses to take a paternity test, the other parent can ask the court to order them to participate.

If you have documentation of paternity confirmation that meets your state's requirements, submit it to the court when you open your custody case. If you need a court order for DNA testing, you can request it alone or include it with requests for custody or child support.

Once paternity is confirmed, your custody case continues through the court's legal process.

Unmarried parents need a parenting plan

Creating a parenting plan helps you and the other parent work together to raise your child. As part of the plan, your parenting time schedule creates structure while ensuring that your child spends adequate time with each parent. The parenting provisions help you and the other parent communicate, make child-rearing decisions together and resolve disagreements.

Unlike divorcing parents, unmarried parents can choose if they want to formalize their parenting plan by asking the court to make it an enforceable court order.

If you and the other parent can agree to a parenting plan on your own, you're not required to get custody orders. However, experts always recommend getting them. Even if you're on the best of terms with the other parent, you should have your plan made into a court order to legally protect yourself and your child.

Making an all-inclusive parenting plan

The more specific and organized your parenting plan, the better it helps you co-parent. An effective parenting plan includes:

  • A detailed schedule that meets your child's needs
  • Explanations of how parents will make parenting decisions (education, medical care, discipline, etc.)
  • Arrangements for how parents will share child-rearing expenses
  • Rules for how parents will communicate with each other and resolve parenting disagreements
  • Customized provisions to address your family's unique situation

With a Custody X Change parenting plan, you can:

  • Make a written and visual parenting time schedule that includes special events and third-party time
  • Choose from more than 140 customizable provisions to guide co-parenting
  • Calculate your parenting time so you know exactly how much time your child spends with each parent
  • Print custody calendars, provisions and detailed parenting time reports
  • Save everything as Word, Excel and PDF documents
  • Export your custody calendar to your calendar app

Child custody mediation for unmarried parents

If you can communicate effectively with the other parent, you may be able to negotiate a parenting plan without outside help.

If you need help agreeing, you can hire a lawyer or mediator. Most unmarried parents (and married parents, for that matter) use a mediator for negotiations, which feels less combative. Your court may offer free or low-cost mediation for child custody.

Arrive to negotiation or mediation sessions with a parenting plan and parenting time schedule that clearly detail the custody arrangements you want. Consider making multiple plans and schedules so you can present options.

Custody X Change can help you successfully negotiate the custody arrangement you want by:

  • Providing organization and clarity that helps ease stress and tension
  • Making it easy to look at options for your parenting time schedule
  • Allowing you to personalize co-parenting provisions that work for both parents and support your child's needs
  • Equipping you with clear visuals of your parenting time schedule, actual parenting time reports and more

Protect your parental rights by tracking your custody situation

Whether you're negotiating an agreement or having a judge decide, you need detailed information about your custody situation. The more evidence you have, the better equipped you are to protect your parental rights and your child's best interests.

With Custody X Change, you can:

Use this information in negotiations or as evidence in court to help you win the custody arrangement you want.

After you get your final orders, be sure to continue tracking your custody situation to make sure both parents follow the parenting plan. This information is essential if you need to return to court to have your orders enforced or modified.

The easiest way to make a parenting plan

Creating a parenting plan on your own can feel overwhelming. You have to address all possible situations, while using airtight legal language.

Use technology to take the guesswork out of the equation. The Custody X Change app walks you through each step of creating a plan.

The result will be a professional document that demonstrates your competence as a parent, secures your child's future and protects your rights as an unmarried parent.

The easiest and most reliable way to make a parenting plan is with Custody X Change.

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Long distance schedules

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Factors to consider

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