When it comes to parental rights, California law does not make distinctions between married and unmarried couples. That being said, there are some special measures unmarried parents must take to preserve legal remedies which may be automatically available to married couples.
Establishing Legal Parenthood
For most parents, there are few things more important than the ability to spend time with their children. Unbeknownst to many unmarried couples, a parent’s ability to seek child custody, visitation and other parental rights may depend on his or her status as a legal parent.
An unmarried individual’s status as a legal parent is not necessarily based on an actual relationship with a child — it takes documentation and the filing of legal papers to cement an individual’s role as a legal parent. Even when unmarried parents presently enjoy an amicable relationship, it is always prudent to hedge against future familial rifts by establishing legal parenthood. Most often, this means that legal adoption procedures must be followed or paternity must be established, as the biological mother is already considered one of a child’s legal parents at birth.
In the case of unmarried biological fathers living in Southern California, a Los Angeles Paternity Lawyer is the best resource for a full explanation of the intricacies of legal fatherhood in The Golden State. But, there are some general guidelines every unmarried parent should know.
When a child is born to a married couple, paternity is typically automatically assigned to the husband. For unmarried parents, the establishment of paternity is not automatic. Paternity may be determined in several ways.
If both parents voluntarily choose to do so, they may sign a form known as a Declaration of Paternity. This is best done at the hospital when the child is born so that each parent’s name may be entered on the birth certificate. The Declaration of Paternity may be completed and submitted at a later date as well, although waiting until after leaving the hospital means that the child’s birth records will have to be subsequently amended.
If one parent wishes to establish paternity but cannot convince the other parent to sign a Declaration of Paternity, a paternity action may be initiated in court. In a paternity case, DNA testing may be used as evidence to prove a father’s biological relationship to a child.
Blood and genetic testing may also be used to disavow paternity: after filing a Declaration of Paternity, a man may challenge his legal status as the father of a child by filing a court action within two years after the child’s birth. If it can be shown that the presumed father is not, in fact, the child’s biological father, he will forfeit his parental rights and be freed of his parental obligations.
California courts have the power to terminate someone’s status as a legal parent should they fail to fulfill parental duties. While this can negate a biological parent’s rights in the custody and visitation contexts, it does not free them from child support obligations.
Role of Legal Parenthood in Pursuing Child Custody, Other Parental Rights
Legal parents each have an equal right to pursue child custody, and once custody is granted, a custodial parent cannot deprive the other legal parent of visitation rights. Unmarried partners who are not considered the legal parent of a child, on the other hand, can only gain custody in extraordinary circumstances, and may have no right to even visit the child.
When a court determines custody and visitation arrangements for a child, it looks to the best interests of the child. Thus, it is possible for a non-parent, in rare cases, to gain custody or secure visitation rights. Still, legal parents are typically favored; a custody dispute in which a child only has one legal parent is often a one-sided battle.
Of course, unmarried partners may enter into a written agreement that establishes standards for custody, visitation, support and other concerns whether they are both legal parents or not. Even so, the standards that would guide any eventual court decision color parenting plan negotiations, meaning that non-parents may be disfavored outside as well as inside the courtroom.
Ramifications of Legal Parent Status for Children, Couples
If you or someone close to you is acting as a child’s parent, it is imperative to establish a legal parent relationship in the eyes of the law. As outlined above, one’s status as a legal parent has important implications in terms of the custody rights of unmarried parents in California. It also affects many other parenting considerations, including whether a custodial parent is entitled to child support from his or her partner, whether a child has access to potentially important family medical records, whether a child can take advantage of certain benefits afforded to one parent (health care coverage, Social Security payments, veteran’s benefits, etc.), a child’s inheritance rights, and, giving a child a sense of belonging by knowing the identity of both of his or her parents.
If you are or are about to become the parent of a child, find out how to both protect your rights and ensure the wellbeing of your offspring. Contact an experienced family law attorney today.