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Child Custody for Unwed Couples

by Steve Fritsch on May 18, 2015

Children are born in all sorts of circumstances. Sometimes the couple is married, but in many cases they are not. The couple might be unmarried, but still be “together” during the early years of the child’s life and then break up leaving the question as to how much time the child will spend with each parent. Sometimes, a child is born, and initially the father has little or no involvement, and the mother, by default has primary custody. In these types of cases, fathers need to work with a child custody lawyer in order to help define their place in the child’s life. In rare cases, where they feel that the child might be in danger with his or her mother, the father may even petition the court for full custody of the child.

Determining Custody

The courts make custody decisions based on what is best for the child. If both parents are active participants in the child’s life, and neither is unfit, it is likely that they will somehow share custody.   Whichever parent has the child with them the majority of the time is the primary custodial parent, and the other parent is the non-custodial parent, even if the child does spend a significant amount of time with that parent, such as alternating weekends and holidays. During each parent’s turn with the child, they are responsible for the child’s general well-being while they are in their care. Major decisions about a child’s welfare, education, health, and the style of their upbringing are made based on the court’s decision regarding legal custody, which may be shared differently than physical custody.

Facing Custody Disputes

With unwed couples there can be a good deal of dispute surrounding who gets what type of custody, and/or how much visitation the other parent will be allowed to have, as well as the circumstances of those visits. The state of California requires that those involved attend Family Court Services. Sometimes an acceptable agreement can be reached quickly, but if the parents do not agree on what is best for the child, the Family Court Services mediator will make a recommendation in writing based on the circumstances and present it to the judge. The judge might follow the recommendation exactly, or come up with an alternate solution based on any other evidence or testimony he is presented with. The right custody attorney can help you make your case in getting more time or rights regarding the upbringing of your child.

Situations Where Unmarried Parents Enter a Custody Dispute

When deciding what is in the best interest of the child for parents who are unmarried, they look at the specific situation, and how the child has adjusted to it. Here are possible scenarios.

  • The child was born to a single mother who, by default has always assumed full physical and legal custody. The father’s involvement, or desired involvement is a new experience for the child.
  • Paternity was not established right away, and the father is looking for a way to participate in the child’s life and exercise his rights as a father.
  • The parents were originally married, and the custody agreement made at the time of the divorce needs to be altered to accommodate changed circumstances. This may include situations where the custodial parent wishes to move out of the area, and wants to take the child with them.
  • Domestic violence or abuse is suspected in a home where the child resides. The other parent may want to present their case as the more suitable guardian.

A qualified lawyer will listen to parents in any of these situation, and can even take the opinions of the child into account — although the child is not the one who ultimately decides the case. They can give you a preview of what a mediator is likely to recommend, and help you gather the tools to challenge that recommendation if necessary.

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