There was a time when family law courts gave the parental rights of unmarried fathers in California little thought. Further, only a handful of unwed fathers were determined to fight for child custody rights. However, more recently, this trend has started to change as fathers who are not married to their child's mother are beginning to exercise their legal rights, and the courts have been forced to listen.
Fathers who are not married will face similar legal hurdles that divorcing parents will face related to child custody, child visitation, and support matters.
Unmarried fathers in California must understand that in any legal dispute involving a child, all family law courts have the same top priority: the child's best interest. California Family Law Code 3020 defines the custody of children as follows:
- “(a) It is the policy of this state to ensure the safety and welfare of children will be the court's primary concern to determine their best interests when making orders for child physical or legal custody or visitation, who have a right to be safe and free from abuse, and domestic violence in their household.”
The family law courts will recognize an unmarried father's parental rights. Still, judges' primary consideration will always be what they believe is in the child's best interest.
This is a top priority, and they simply don't care how you feel or what you want. Put simply; it's not about you. If you are an unmarried father seeking child custody rights, this could be good news because a father's rights could naturally be in the child's best interest.
California family courts have recognized that giving a child an opportunity to bond with their father usually is always in their best interest long-term. Our Los Angeles divorce and family law lawyers are providing an overview below for more information.
Do Unmarried Fathers Have Inherent Parental Rights in California?
No. Unmarried fathers need to note that they don't have any inherent paternal rights, which is why you have to be proactive by petitioning the family law court for child custody and visitation rights. A much better option, but not always practical, is for an unmarried father to negotiate and come up with an unofficial mutual agreement with the mother.
If you are on good terms with the birth mother, you can work out an agreement with her to see your child. The courts don't always have to get involved in your business, but this is not always possible.
According to California law, all parental rights belong to the mother alone in this type of situation. In some cases, a father might be required to establish paternity. After the child is born, if an unmarried father wishes to obtain parental rights legally, you should retain a family law attorney to petition the court.
Can You Seek a Voluntary Declaration of Parentage?
Yes. Unmarried fathers need to know there is yet another way to obtain parental rights for their children in California. If you can reach an agreement with the mother to sign a “voluntary declaration of parentage,” you don't have to appear in court over the child issue.
You will obtain parental rights as long as you are the biological father. The key term here is “voluntary,” meaning the child's mother holds all the cards, and there are no guarantees she will be willing to sign them.
Fathers should note that this form is legally binding, and if a mother signs it but changes their mind later to take away her parental rights, it can be difficult to overturn it.
If the parents sign a declaration of paternity when the child is born, then both names will be placed on the birth certificate. If it is signed later, a revised birth certificate can be issued. After it's signed, it has to be submitted to the California Department of Child Support Services, that state:
- “Unmarried parents that sign the declaration of paternity form will help their child gain the same rights as a child born in a marriage, including financial support from both parents, access to medical benefits and records, and emotional support of knowing both parents.”
Most unmarried dads in California are thrilled to find out they have several legal avenues to secure parental rights.
What About Paying Child Support?
Please note, unmarried fathers, that having parental rights means some legal responsibilities come with it. While you will be eligible for child visitation, the family law court orders that any unmarried father who has gained parental rights will be legally obligated to pay monthly child support, especially when they live with their mother.
Our experience is that for most unmarried fathers seeking parental rights, the opportunity to have child visitation rights is far more important than having to pay child support payments.
What Are the Responsibilities of Legal Parents?
Once legal parenthood has been established in the state of California, then both parents have an equal legal right to child custody and likewise a responsibility to provide financial support for the child.
Now that you are a “legal” parent, you assume all the responsibilities that come with it. One of the most common examples is when you are an unmarried father and don't live with your kid. The family law court will probably order you to make child support payments.
Unmarried fathers in California are expected to support their children and can face prosecution if they fail to meet their obligations.
When a child's parents were never married, disputes over support are often not resolved in a family courtroom because a mutual agreement has been reached between the parents. After the parents have reached a child support agreement, it will need to be charged at a later date, which is discussed below.
What is Child Support Modification in California?
After a family court judge issues a child support order, unmarried parents can't change it independently without letting the court know about it.
Frequently, issues such as new employment and relocation, significant injury, and even getting remarried are common reasons why a child support order in California might require modification.
Changes in either parent's lives are ordinary. Thus child support modifications are routinely handled by family court judges. If the parents mutually and verbally agree to change the amount of child support, then we can help you make the arrangement legally binding by asking a judge to sign it.
Even when an unmarried father has made a verbal agreement with the mother on the amount of child support, they still must protect themselves.
Can You Reach a Mutual Agreement with the Mother?
Yes. Suppose you are an unmarried father in California and can't reach an agreement with the mother regarding child custody or visitation. In that case, you are forcing a judge to decide for both of you.
Before a hearing occurs, however, both parents must meet with a counselor who will attempt to assist them in reaching a custody and parenting plan. Frequently, the counselor will make a child custody and visitation recommendation to the family court judge.
Unmarried fathers will usually be granted child visitation rights. Still, when the mother has proven herself to be a good parent, then an unmarried father has an uphill battle in winning any child custody dispute.
Reaching a mutual agreement with the mother over child custody and visitation is usually the best option. In other words, don't force a court to intervene.
How Can a Family Law Lawyer Help You With Child Custody Issues?
As noted above, it's crucial for unmarried fathers in California to understand that the best interest of the child standard is the primary consideration of all family law courtrooms regarding custody and visitation.
The courts always consider many different factors to determine child custody and who will be the primary caregiver, such as:
- financial ability to care for the child,
- moral character of each parent,
- history of domestic violence,
- any criminal record
- wishes of the child if they are old enough
If you are an unmarried father and need more information or legal advice about your child custody rights, then contact our family law attorneys to review all the specific details and how we might be able to help you.
We represent clients throughout Southern California and have experience representing unmarried fathers in a legal dispute with the child's mother over custody, support, visitation, and establishing parental rights.
Furman & Zavatsky is located in Los Angeles County in the San Fernando Valley area. We provide divorce and family law legal representation. We offer a free case evaluation at (818) 528-3471 or fill out the contact form.