Children often look up to the adults in their lives for guidance, protection and support. Adults who influence children the most are usually their parents, however, couples come in all shapes and forms. When the relationship between the two primary caregivers of a child falls apart, it can be damaging to the emotional health of that child, regardless of the caregivers’ marital status.
Best Interest of the Child
One of the most important aspects of custody cases is that the most favorable solution is the one in the best interest of the child. Whether personal agreements, mediation or court order determine custody and visitation, the well-being of the child should be the top priority. In fact, in most custody-related court cases, the judge will use the child’s best interest as a legal standard for making a final decision.
Rights of a Legal Parent
If you and your former partner are legal parents of your child, either through biology or adoption, you both have legal rights to custody and will most likely settle the dispute similarly to a divorced couple. Usually a social worker will examine each of your parenting abilities and report the findings to a judge. If you can civilly come to terms on a custody agreement, you are welcome to propose those terms to the court for approval. It is possible, however, for a judge to deny your proposal and provide an alternate arrangement.
The legal parents of a child have rights and responsibilities. They can spend time with the child, have a say in decision-making regarding the child’s life, access their child’s personal records and know about what happens with the child. They must provide for, nurture and protect their child or the courts with withdraw custody.
Rights of a Non-Legal Parent
In many custody cases for unwed couples, only one parent is the legal guardian of the child. In these cases, the rights of the non-legal parent are limited. Even if the non-legal parent played a major role in raising the child, he or she has no rightful custody or ties to financial support. Some states are starting to recognize the importance of allowing non-legal parents to state their case for joint custody or visitation, and it could be possible to obtain second-parent adoption with the approval of the legal parent.
Some matters of custody are difficult to sort out due to the unknown paternity of the child. Fathers could be unaware of or deny their biological connection to a child. Fathers and their attorneys must establish paternity before proceeding with custody hearings. Either the mother or assumed father can request a DNA test to prove paternity. If both the mother and father agree on the paternity of the child, the courts don’t require a test.
Details of Parenting Agreements
The three main components of a parenting agreement are custody, visitation and child support. Custody gives a parent the right to have authority over the decisions that influence the child’s life. It also makes the parent responsible for the financial, physical and emotional support of the child.
If the court settles on joint custody, the child typically has one parent as the primary physical custodian, meaning the child lives with this parent most of the time, and the other parent has reasonable visitation rights. Unless the court decides otherwise, the parents can create their own arrangements for visitation. If one parent does not uphold their end of the agreement, the other can take the matter to court.
The law requires both legal parents to provide financial support to the child based on their individual incomes. The court will often determine the amount the non-custodial parent should provide. Failure to pay child support can result in actions leading to prosecution.
If you find yourself in a custody situation with your unwed partner, try to be as open and flexible as possible at first. Whatever arrangement that works for your family, consider the help of an attorney who will have your best interests at heart during child custody decisions.