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What Happens with Custody When Unmarried Parents Split in California?

When unmarried parents separate, they don’t need to file for divorce or worry about changing names. But although they aren’t legally required to get a court order to determine custody or child support, formally documenting these details protects parents’ rights to child support, custody and visitation in the long term.

Separating parents often encounter these two problematic but common scenarios.

  1. Primary caregiver seeking child support — Mothers, who are most often the primary caregivers for babies and small children, may seek financial support to help pay for child-related expenses after a separation, and they may receive full cooperation from the father. But what happens if the father, whose paternity may not have been established legally, stops paying? Having a court order from the beginning of a separation enables the court to enforce regular payments, penalize late or missed payments, and garnish wages if a parent isn’t paying court-ordered support. It will be essential to establish the father’s paternity first. Parents can stipulate to paternity (or “parentage”) by filing a Declaration of Paternity with the court or the court may order genetic testing to establish paternity if either parent refuses to acknowledge it.
  2. Fathers seeking custody or visitation rights — Establishing paternity is also important for fathers who wish to protect their rights to be a regular part of their children’s lives. Whether a father wants to petition the court for sole or shared custody or just wants regular visitation, establishing paternity is paramount. When married couples divorce, paternity is not questioned. But for unmarried fathers, paternity has to be proven or stipulated to by both parents. Once parentage is established, a father can seek a court order for visitation or petition for custody. With that court order in hand, he can go back to the court at any time to enforce his visitation and custody rights if the other parent isn’t complying.

Same-sex parents have similar issues to contend with but face added complications relating to differences between legal and biological parenthood. In these cases, the court would look at who the primary caregiver is, who the biological parent is, and other factors about the child’s relationship to each parent.

Establishing parentage is also important for your children. In addition to the emotional benefits of knowing who their parents are, kids benefit from certain legal rights and privileges in California, such as financial support from both parents, legal documentation identifying both parents, having the names of both parents on the child’s birth certificate, and health and life insurance coverage from either parent.

If you are separating from the parent of your child or are dealing with a child support, visitation or child custody issue, it’s important to seek counsel from a lawyer who has handled these issues successfully.

Williams Family Law has experience advising clients in divorce or separation, child custody and other family law matters throughout the Sacramento area. Call 916-407-0544 or contact us online to schedule a meeting.


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