Many unmarried parents do not realize that child custody can become a very large issue in their lives because they associate custody disputes only with married couples ending marriages.
Sometimes when an unmarried couples splits up, the unmarried father may want custody. He is in for a surprise. While both parents enjoy equal rights to custody when they are married, the law views unmarried parents differently. Unless a woman is unfit or incompetent, the unmarried mother enjoys automatic custody rights to her child, and the unmarried father must take legal action to gain custody – and even visitation – of his child.
Under the law, an unmarried father does not enjoy custody rights, even when his name is on the birth certificate and his paternity established. When the unmarried dad seeks custody, he must demonstrate active participation in the life and rearing of his child.
Generally speaking, if a man’s paternity has been established, he can petition for joint legal custody, which means he makes decisions about the child’s education, health and general well-being with the child’s mother, and joint physical custody, which means the child lives with him part of the time and both enjoy visitation, so he can have the opportunity to get to know his child and establish a relationship.