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What Are the Rights of Unmarried Fathers?

By Renee Booker
Updated May 17, 2024
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The various cultures and legal systems around the world treat unmarried fathers differently with regard to their rights. In some cultures, having a child out of wedlock is still culturally unacceptable and therefore does not happen with great frequency. In other countries, such as the United States, having a child out of wedlock is common and the laws have evolved to address situations where parents are not married at the time of a child's birth. In almost all jurisdictions within the United States, the rights of unmarried fathers depend on whether or not the father has legally established paternity. Once paternity has been established, an unmarried father usually has the same rights as the mother or as a father who was married to the mother when the child was born.

Although a putative, or alleged, father may freely admit that he is the father of a child, the rights of unmarried fathers are virtually non-existent unless the father has been legally determined to be the father through the establishment of paternity. In other words, a father of a child who was not married to the mother at the time of birth does not have a legal right to visitation, to make healthcare of school decisions, or to petition for custody unless paternity has been established in most jurisdictions. On the other hand, absent a legal determination of paternity, an unmarried father is also not generally responsible for paying child support for the child.

In order to protect the rights of unmarried fathers, state laws within the United States allow various methods of legally establishing paternity. Many fathers mistakenly believe that simply adding his name to the birth certificate legally establishes paternity. While listing the putative father's name on the birth certificate is certainly evidence that he may be the father, it is not conclusive evidence of paternity in most cases.

Establishing paternity is the best way to protect the rights of unmarried fathers. Each jurisdiction may have slightly different laws by which paternity may be established; however, there are common methods. Signing a paternity affidavit is generally the easiest way to legally establish paternity. A paternity affidavit is a legal document, signed by both the mother and the putative father, declaring that the putative father is, indeed, the legal father of the child. The affidavit is then filed with the health department and paternity is established. Paternity may also be establish by either the mother or the putative father filing a petition to establish paternity with the appropriate court, upon which the court will order a DNA test to confirm paternity.

Once paternity has been established, the rights of unmarried fathers are the same as any other parent. An unmarried father will then have rights to visitation and decision making for the child in many cases. A father will also then be responsible for supporting the child by paying child support.

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