State Laws Regarding Custody for Unmarried Fathers Vary from State to State

Cohabitation is on a steady incline in the United States, which means more children are born in homes where parents aren’t married – and don’t intend to be anytime soon. Research shows us these couples are also more likely to split than their married counterparts. The legal implications vary so widely from one state to the next it can be difficult for men to find accurate information.

When Establishing Paternity Is Not the Same as Securing Rights


When an unmarried woman gives birth to a child, there’s no doubt she’s the mother. Proving you’re the father isn’t always so easy. Often, the mother receives sole custody until the father establishes paternity. In some cases (not all), a father can sign a paternity acknowledgment form and have his name placed on the birth certificate, but even that won’t secure parental rights in these 14 states.

This applies if you live in:

  • Arkansas
  • Arizona
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Iowa
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee,
  • Or Wisconsin

In which case the mother still receives sole custody, and as an umarried father, you must establish your rights in court.

Some men use their state’s child support registry to prove paternity, only to discover an obligation to pay support doesn’t automatically grant them parenting time. In these situations, parents often come to personal arrangements. Most moms want dads to see their kids, and it’s best for your children when you can work together for them. Unfortunately, these unofficial agreements can cause problems for dads.

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Without a legal order in place, mothers are able to restrict parenting time for any reason. In states where child support amounts take parenting time into consideration, fathers without a custody order wind up overpaying. Legal agreements protect your relationship with your child — and your bank account.

When You’re Not the Biological Father

Men who care for another man’s children – or who find out they’ve been deceived after the fact – are more likely to pay child support than secure time with their kids. Again, these laws vary greatly from state to state. Some allow all de facto guardians to file for custody and parenting time. In other states, nothing short of adoption works.

Where Unmarried Fathers Can Find Accurate Custody Information

If you’ve split from your partner, or anticipating doing so, it’s important to seek qualified legal advice. There are several options available, even for those with low incomes. You should check with the bar association in your state for sliding-scale programs or for legal clinics available through nearby law schools, according to Anne Mitchell, an attorney specializing in fathers’ rights. More advice and a list of resources state-by-state can be found in her book They’re Your Kids Too: The Single Father’s Guide to Defending Your Fatherhood in a Broken Family Lawn System.

As you navigate the murky waters of custody and child support, it’s important for unmarried fathers to stay protected. Realize the advice you get from friends might not be relevant in your state or to your situation. Search out legal advice from official sources to ensure the best arrangement for everyone involved.  


Data for this article was sourced from: