When parents separate or divorce, one of the main concerns is who will retain custody of any children produced in the marriage. In cases of unmarried parents who separate, the matter becomes even more complicated. As one in four children in America are born to unmarried parents, this is an extremely relevant legal matter to understand. In cases like this, custody determinations are made by specific criteria that differs by state. A key factor in custody decisions is whether paternity has been established. This is what you need to prove in order to gain custody and/or visitation rights.
The law in Pennsylvania regarding paternity
As in most states, Pennsylvania awards full custody to the mother if paternity has not been established. This is not meant to discriminate against fathers, but rather to ensure the right person gains the responsibilities associated with fatherhood. It also protects men from being charged child support for children that are not theirs.
Ways to establish paternity
There are three main ways that paternity can be established in Pennsylvania:
- If the parents marry later, after the birth of the child, paternity will be assumed
- If enough evidence is presented that the father openly acknowledges the child as his own and provides for their needs
- If there is clear evidence of fatherhood, such as a DNA test
As an unmarried father, you can register paternity in Pennsylvania with the Department of Public Welfare. Note that your acknowledgement of paternity is legally binding with no further judicial proof. At any point, the mother or another party can request a paternity test. However, if no one challenges your claim, your word and signature on a few forms is enough.
Once paternity is established, a custody dispute is handled in the same way as it would be for a divorcing married couple. The needs and wellbeing of the child are considered by a judge, and a determination is made granting either sole or joint custody to one or both parents.
It is very common to be an unmarried father in America today. Your lack of marital status should not and will not prevent you from being a part of your child’s life. The first step to take toward that end is to establish paternity upon your separation with the child’s mother.