Child Custody: What Are The Rights of Unmarried Parents?

Unmarried parents holding their baby.Generally, the rights of unmarried parents include the same rights to the care, custody, and control of their child that married parents enjoy. However, there is one caveat. Unmarried biological fathers, otherwise known as putative fathers, must establish themselves as legal parent before they can exercise visitation and make decisions impacting the child.

What Does “Paternity” Mean?

“Paternity” simply means the state of being one’s father.

Iowa courts presume maternity, or the state of being one’s mother, by the simple fact that a woman gives birth to the child. When a child is born during a marriage, Iowa law presumes that the mother’s husband is the father of the child.

When the parents are unmarried, a biological father must establish paternity. A birth certificate is insufficient. To establish paternity, typically the parties agree that the man is the biological father, and they fill out certain legal documents. In some instances, paternity requires a court action to establish.

A putative father has no automatic rights to the care, custody, and control of the child. That is also the case if the unmarried father is listed on the birth certificate. Only a legal parent can seek custody or parenting time (visitation) with the child. The unmarried mother retains sole legal and physical custody of the child until a court order states otherwise. Once a man establishes himself as a child’s legal parent, he becomes responsible for supporting the child. Depending on the length of time between birth and the establishment of paternity, a newly minted legal father may owe back child support. In such a case, it is advisable to seek the help of an experienced Iowa family legal matters attorney.

Why Should Biological Fathers Establish Paternity?

Establishing paternity benefits not only the unmarried father but, more importantly, the child. The following are just some of the advantages fathers and children receive by establishing paternity or legal parenthood.

Visitation Rights

As discussed above, an unmarried mother retains sole custody rights over their child until an unmarried father establishes legal paternity through the courts.

Decision-Making Authority Over the Child

A putative father has no right to involve himself in the child’s life. This includes matters of adoption, religion, education, medical care, or emergency contingency plans that impact the child.

Strengthens Family Relationships

Establishing paternity not only solidifies the relationship between father and child, it also strengthens the ties to the father’s entire family including grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives.

Genetic Background History

Some medical diagnoses and treatments require knowledge of the child’s genetic information. Whether it be hemophilia or high cholesterol, a legal father can benefit the child by having this information readily available.

Inheritance Rights

Once an unmarried father establishes paternity, the child gains the legal right to inherit from him and the father’s relatives via the state’s intestacy laws.

Government Benefits

A child may become eligible to receive Social Security benefits in the event the legal father becomes disabled. In addition, the child may qualify for death benefits or, if the father is a veteran, military benefits.

How Do I Establish Paternity?

The easiest way to establish paternity is to simply marry before the birth of the child. However, if marriage isn’t in the cards, the following steps will help you establish paternity so that you can protect your rights as a father.

Affidavit of Paternity

Under Iowa Code 252A.3A, unmarried fathers can establish the paternity of a child by completing and filing an Affidavit of Paternity with the State Registrar. Affidavits of paternity are also available from the hospital where the child is born. The hospital should have staff that can help you complete the paperwork. In addition, they should have a notary on staff to witness the document signing. Once the affidavit is notarized, the hospital will either send it in for you or provide you with written instructions for returning it.

Affidavits of Paternity must include:

  • The birthdate and the full name of the child;
  • The Social Security number of both parents;
  • The address of each parent;
  • Statements of each parenting acknowledging that the man is the father; and
  • Notarized signatures of each parent.

Note that an Affidavit of Paternity requires the consent of the mother. If the mother contests the Affidavit of Paternity, you may have to go to court to establish your paternity. However, be aware that establishing paternity on the birth certificate is not the same thing as establishing rights to visitation with the child. That can only be done through the court.

Paternity Order

The second way to establish paternity is to seek a Paternity Order through the Child Support Recovery Unit (CSRU) within the Iowa Department of Human Services. The CSRU concerns itself with identifying putative fathers and establishing them as legal parents so that the mother receives adequate child support. The CRSU will issue a Paternity Order after performing DNA testing on the unmarried father and child to determine whether there is a genetic link.

Judicial Action

Court action may become necessary if the mother refuses to consent to the Affidavit of Paternity. At the hearing, you can ask the court to both establish paternity and set a visitation schedule. Until the court issues an order establishing paternity, the mother will have sole custody rights.

As with obtaining a Paternity Order through the Iowa Department of Human Services, a court will order blood or other genetic tests to determine whether you are the biological father. The testing must be done by a laboratory accredited by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The cost of the testing is determined by the court in accordance with Iowa law and typically assessed against the putative father.

Should the test results establish a genetic match, the mother can still challenge the results. This may result in additional testing. Once any challenges are overcome, the court will establish the biological father as the legal father. The legal father will then have the full range of constitutional rights to the care, custody, and control of their child.

An Experienced Law Firm Dedicated to You and Your Family

Navigating Iowa’s paternity laws and procedures can be overwhelming. At 303 Legal, P.C., we are passionate about assisting putative fathers in obtaining the full range of constitutional rights associated with legal parenthood. No two clients are the same. When you work with our firm, we provide individualized attention and custom solutions tailored to your own set of circumstances. Contact our lawyer today for a free consultation.