When a child is born to a married couple, both the mother and the father have equal rights and responsibilities without the requirement for any legal documentation. Fatherhood is presumed unless the issue is contested and, in the event that the marriage doesn’t last, both parents have a legal right to continue their relationship with the child.
When the parents aren’t married, but are cohabitating, however, these rights and responsibilities aren’t quite so definitive. Fatherhood is not presumed with the same resolve as it is with married couples and instead of the father’s rights being automatically guaranteed at breakup, the father must first establish his legal standing as a parent before any rights will be bestowed. Essentially, as long as the family unit remains intact, the father can continue to enjoy his relationship with the child. But when that unmarried family unit is disrupted, your legal rights as a parent are no longer guaranteed.
Because fatherhood is not automatically assumed under the law in unmarried couples, the mother essentially has sole custody of the child until paternity is legally established. Being named on the birth certificate does not automatically guarantee paternity in all states so it is important to establish paternity using other legal means. To do this, the parents may agree to paternity through a Declaration of Paternity or similar document or they can establish fatherhood through genetic paternity testing. Doing so entitles the biological father to custody and/or visitation with the child and also requires him to provide financial support until the child reaches the age of majority.
But what if you’re not the biological father of the child?
It used to be that step-parents and other caregivers had little legal standing regarding custody and visitation of the child, however that has changed somewhat over the years.
Instead, courts prefer to create an environment that best supports the child. That means that if you’ve developed a strong and lasting bond with the child, the court may be willing to grant you visitation to allow that relationship to continue. The laws will differ from state to state of course, but in general most states work to preserve the child’s family unit as much as possible. A step-parent will not be required to provide child support unless there has been a step-parent adoption.
Obviously, if you and your partner can reach an amicable agreement regarding visitation, you can document that arrangement in a Parenting Agreement and simply submit that to the court for approval. However, if you are unable to reach such an agreement, nonlegal fathers do now have the ability to petition the courts to intervene.
Non-legal parents also have limitations as to the decisions they can make on the child’s behalf.
Medical decisions for example, are reseved for legal parents and guardians only so live-in parents and step-parents wouldn’t normally be able to give permission for medical treatments unless they have legally adopted the child or if they are a designated legal guardian. Likewise, granting permission for field trips at school and absentee excuses would also be reserved for those with legal authority over the child. To ensure that you are able to provide the maximum care and supervision for your step-child, you and the child’s legal parent(s) would need to contact an attorney to discuss the steps you need to take to establish the proper permissions.