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Custody and Visitation Considerations for Unmarried Parents

Child custody and visitation arrangements are rarely easy. Unfortunately, they can present significant problems when a child has unmarried parents. Unlike the situation for married parents, where there are many state laws outlining duties, rights, and responsibilities, in the case of unmarried parents, there exist very few comparable guidelines.

In some ways, laws for married and unmarried parents are similar; in other key regards, they differ markedly. It is important, therefore, to consult counsel or otherwise become familiar with the laws of your particular state.

Establishing Paternity

In child custody, paternity is not presumed in cases where parents are unmarried. As such, paternity must be established voluntarily or by court-ordered genetic or DNA testing. DNA testing is utilized because of its high degree of accuracy.

Once paternity is established, child visitation and custody proceed the same way they do in cases of divorce: a court order is required to establish the legal framework for custody and visitation. Without a court order firmly in place to govern the parenting of an unmarried couple's children, visitation and custody could be manipulated without notice by either parent at any time. Similarly, visitation and custody could be altered without regard for the legally-binding standard of the best interests of the children.

Other Factors for Consideration

Courts consider a myriad of factors in making child custody determinations. The foremost factor is the best interests of the child. Courts also operate under the presumption that both parents have rights to nurture and raise their children, unless such participation would be harmful to the children. Other factors include:

  • a parent's ability to provide a good home to the child
  • ability of the parent to care for the child's particular needs
  • wishes of the child and parents
  • relationship of a child to each parent and extended family
  • mental and physical health of each parent and child
  • child's adjustment to home, school, and community
  • which parent's home is more likely to promote the best levels of stability and continuity for the child.

Often, a child psychologist is appointed by the court to make an assessment as to how well the child adjusts to her home environment and what is best for the child from an emotional perspective. Older children may be consulted by the judge as to their opinions and preferences.

In child custody determinations, parents are also often reviewed by the courts or their designees for suitability. Prior acts, drug or alcohol abuse, habits, physical and emotional health, and illegal activities may be considered.

Family law courts make determinations about visitation rights and schedules put into place for the non-custodial parent. Courts generally start from the assumption that frequent contact with both parents is optimal for the child, unless circumstances dictate otherwise.