Child Custody Laws for Unmarried Parents

Happy boy after the basketball match with his father. Mid adult man and child are smiling in backyard. They are wearing casuals during weekend concept

Whether a couple who shares children was married or not, making the decision to part ways can have a substantial impact on their family. Importantly, child support and child custody laws for unmarried parents in Pennsylvania are basically the same as those for parents who were legally married at the time of the child’s birth. But there are a few differences concerning how these rights are established and safeguarded for unmarried parents.

Do the Rights of Unmarried Parents Differ from Married Parents?

While unmarried parents typically have the same parental rights as those who were married, there is one key difference. In the event parents are married at the time of a child’s birth, there is a legal presumption that the spouses are the child’s parents. When this presumption applies, it may only be rebutted with clear and convincing evidence that the husband is not the child’s biological father. If parents are unmarried when the child is born, this legal presumption is not applicable — paternity must either be voluntarily acknowledged or proven in court.

Unmarried Mother Rights

The rights of an unmarried mother are no different from the rights of a married mother. For instance, an unmarried mother’s name may appear on the child’s birth certificate, and she has the authority to make decisions on the child’s behalf. Regardless of marital status, a mother has the right to physical and legal custody. An unmarried mother may also have the right to receive child support from the child’s father if paternity was voluntarily acknowledged or established through the court.

Unmarried Father Rights and Paternity

An unmarried father will need to legally establish paternity of the child to enforce his custody rights — and in order for the child’s mother to obtain child support if she is the custodial parent. Even if he is the biological father of the child, a man is not considered the legal father until paternity has been established. Once paternity has been established, the father can place his name on the child’s birth certificate and enforce his parental rights.

Paternity can be acknowledged by an unmarried father signing a “Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity” in front of a witness over the age of 18. Usually this is done at the hospital after the child’s birth, but it can be done at any time before the child reaches the age of majority. Paternity can also be established involuntarily through the court by either party filing a “Petition to Determine Paternity.”

A mother who was unmarried at the time of the child’s birth can also start these proceedings by filing a “Complaint for Child Support.”

If either parent denies paternity, the court may order DNA or genetic testing. The court will issue an order of paternity if it determines that the alleged father is the child’s biological father. This order also declares the father as the child’s legal father, allowing him to pursue custody or visitation rights and foster a parent-child relationship. After paternity has been established, a child may also be eligible for certain benefits from the father, such as healthcare benefits, life insurance, Social Security benefits, and Veterans benefits. Paternity can also entitle a child to inheritance rights from the father.

Child Custody Laws for Unmarried Parents

Whether they were married or not, parents are free to reach an agreement regarding custody arrangements for their children. If the parents cannot decide the issue among themselves, it may be necessary to have the court decide the outcome once paternity has been established. Pennsylvania law does not give preference to either a mother or father when deciding custody issues. Rather, the court will assess 16 factors set forth by statute to determine what is in the child’s best interests.

The two main types of custody in Pennsylvania are legal custody and physical custody. While legal custody concerns who will make essential decisions for the child — including those involving healthcare, education, and religious upbringing — physical custody refers to where the child lives or visits. Legal custody can either belong to one parent or be shared between them.

There are several different types of physical custody arrangements in the Commonwealth that both divorced and unmarried parents may consider, including the following:

  • Primary physical custody - Describes custody when the child lives more than 50 percent of its time with one parent.
  • Shared physical custody — Describes when both parents have equal or nearly equal time with the children.
  • Partial physical custody — When a parent has partial custody, they get to spend a specific period of time with their children, such as every other weekend.
  • Sole physical custody — Describes when only one parent has physical custody of the children.
  • Supervised partial physical custody — Supervised custody refers to a visitation arrangement that is supervised by a party specified in the custody order. This type of custody is only ordered in limited cases where the court determines the child’s welfare may be at risk unless another adult is present during visitation.

A parent may also request a Confirmation of Custody from the court, which makes the custody arrangement in place legally binding. Even if parents reach a settlement outside of court concerning custody, the agreement must be submitted to the court and signed by a judge to become an enforceable order.

Child Support Obligations for Unmarried Parents

Each parent has an obligation to financially support their child. However, a father is not legally required to make child support payments until paternity is established. Once paternity has been established — either voluntarily or through the court — an unmarried father may be required to make child support payments each month until the child turns 18.

Regardless of whether the parents were married, child support is based on the Income Shares Model which takes the income of both parents into account. This principle holds that children are entitled to the same amount of parental income that they would have received if their parents were living together. Support is paid to the parent who has primary physical custody, or to the lower-earning parent when physical custody is equally shared.

Contact an Experienced Pennsylvania Family Law Attorney

If you are an unmarried parent, it’s crucial to understand that you have the legal right to spend time with your child and develop an emotional bond with them. At Berman & Associates, our knowledgeable Pennsylvania family law attorneys are dedicated to helping our clients with a wide variety of legal matters, including establishing their parental rights. We welcome you to contact us today to schedule a consultation at our Media office.