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Child Custody
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Custody Rights & the Single Mother

Many people associate child custody issues with couples who are getting a divorce. But custody is also an important issue facing unmarried parents. The law automatically gives a single mother custody rights. Unmarried fathers, on the other hand, are not automatically entitled to custody rights. When an unmarried couple splits up, however, the father can take steps to gain custody of the child.

If you are a single mother, it's important to understand your custody rights under the law. You should also understand how single mothers can lose custody of their children.

What Are the Unmarried Father's Rights?

Under the law, unmarried fathers are not automatically entitled to custody rights, even if paternity has been established and the father's name is listed on the birth certificate. If an unmarried father seeks custody, he must show the court that he has actively participated in parenting and has helped raise the child.

Who Else Can Ask for Custody of a Child?

As any parent knows, raising a child takes a lot of energy and devotion. Many single parents, in particular, will look to an extended support system of family members and friends to help raise their children. These people--who might include step-parents, grandparents, siblings and, in some instances, foster families--can play a valuable role in a child's growth, development and well-being. However, if family members or friends think they can do a better job than a child's mother, they can ask the court to award them legal custody of a child.

A third party who asks for custody will have to do a lot to prove to the court that custody is deserved. The non-parent has to first establish that he or she has a right to seek custody. Then, that person will have to show the court that the natural parent or parents are unfit to raise the child.

How Can a Single Mother Lose Custody Rights?

If the child's father or third party seeks custody of an unmarried mother's child, they'll have to demonstrate that it's in the best interests of the child. The definition of "best interests" varies from state to state, but judges generally look at a number of factors, including:

  • Where would the child prefer to live (assuming the child is old enough and mature enough to express a preference)?
  • What is each parent's custody desires?
  • What kind of emotional bonds exist between the child and each parent, other siblings and extended family?
  • How well has the child adjusted to his or her existing home, school and community?
  • Does the child have any particular physical or mental health needs that are better managed by one parent over the other?
  • Does either parent have any mental and physical health problems that could hinder his or her ability to care for the child?
  • Who currently has custody of the child?
  • Does either parent have a history of drug or alcohol abuse?
  • Has the child been the victim of any physical, mental or sexual abuse?

Child custody issues can be very personal and emotional matters that pit parent against parent and family member against family member. An experienced child custody lawyer can provide assistance to single mothers whose custody rights have been challenged.