If you are a father going through a divorce or a breakup, you might be concerned about what your custody rights are. In decades past, mothers were often assumed to be the more fit parent and often had more rights when it came to their children than fathers did. Thankfully, that is no longer the case. Judges overwhelmingly support fathers’ rights and the law agrees with them. Read on to find out what your custody rights are if you are a father who is no longer in a relationship with your child’s mother.
Equal Custody Rights Before the Judgment
As a father, you have equal rights to claim custody of your child prior to a judgment that specifies otherwise. This means that if you are or were married to your child’s mother, you have just as much right to custody as she does. The husband of a child’s mother is generally assumed to be the child’s father, so there is nothing you have to do to establish paternity in almost all cases.
If you are or were not married to your child’s mother, you might need to take the step of establishing paternity. If you were in the delivery room and your name is on your child’s birth certificate, you are all set. If not, you might need to fill out a form that acknowledges that you are the child’s father. If his or her mother disputes this, you might need to have a paternity test done. Once paternity has been established, you will have the same custody rights as a married father.
What Shared Custody Looks Like
Most of the time, fathers and mothers will share physical and legal custody of the child. Joint physical custody means that you and the mother will both have time spent with the child. It might not be exactly 50/50; the specifics will depend on how old the child is, where they go to school, how far apart the parents live, and so on.
Joint legal custody means that both the mother and the father will be able to take the child to the doctor, get medical records, decide together which religion (if any) the child will be brought up with, decide together where the child will go to school, and make other legal decisions. Sometimes one parent will have “tiebreaking” privileges over the other for certain types of decisions. For example, you might have the tiebreaking privilege over where the child goes to school and the mother might have tiebreaking privileges over which religion the child is brought up with. These can be compromised ahead of time or a judge can make these decisions.
What About Sole Custody?
If one parent is unfit, the other parent can ask for and get sole physical and/or legal custody of the child. This applies to both mothers and fathers. In general, judges are reluctant to grant sole custody to either parent because studies have overwhelmingly shown that children do better when both parents are involved in their lives. With that being said, a history of abuse, drug or alcohol addiction, neglect, abandonment, and some other factors can lead to the decision for one parent to be given sole custody. If you want to try to get sole custody, a lawyer or a legal resource group like National Family Solutions can help you determine whether that is appropriate and help you with that process.
Tips for Getting Custody of Your Child
A father has the right to ask for joint (or sole) custody of his child, but there are some tips you can follow that will make it more likely that you will get custody.
First, always keep up with your child support payments regardless of the current custody situation. If you and your child’s mother have not been to court yet and are arguing over who will get custody of the child, it is possible that you might not see your child as often as you’d like. Even in this case, pay any mandated child support. A father who refuses to pay ordered child support is in contempt of court and could lose custody of his child.
Build a relationship with your child. If you have visitation scheduled, stick to the plan. Pick up your child when you say you will and return him or her on time. Talk to and play with your child. You don’t have to take them on expensive outings, but look for fun ways to spend time together so you can bond and so you can make a difference in his or her life. Attend school conferences and sporting events. Show that you care by being a present parent.
Work with your child’s mother. The two of you might have decided that you will no longer be a couple, but whether you like it or not, you have to work together to raise your child. Talk to her calmly about setting up a co-parenting agreement. This can include a schedule of when your child will be with you and when they will be with her, how big decisions will be made, logistical details of who will bring the child where they need to be, and so on. The more the two of you can agree on, the less a judge will need to be involved in making decisions for you.
Fathers are just as important as mothers, and in most cases, the court will realize this and will allow for joint custody as long as both parents are fit, loving, and responsible. As a father, you might be afraid of becoming estranged from your child, but in most cases, this does not happen. National Family Solutions works with fathers who want to ensure that they can continue to care for and bond with their children. Contact us to find out whether we can help you in your situation.