What are Fathers’ Rights When Parents Aren’t Married?

Father and toddler outdoors

When a family welcomes a new child it should be a happy event. But when a child’s parents aren’t married sometimes that child’s father faces an uphill paternity battle to establish their rights and protect their children. Our attorneys are here to fight for fathers' rights.

When Parents’ Rights Are Automatic

Everyone has a biological dad, but not every child is born with a legal father. When a child’s parents are married at the time the child is born, then both parents’ rights are automatic. The husband of a child’s birth mother is automatically the legal father of the child. His name will be added to the child’s birth certificate, and he will have the authority to act as the child’s parent, including seeking custody if the marriage eventually falls apart.

Parental Rights Among Families Who Are Happy Together, But Unmarried

Increasingly, not all couples go through a formal wedding. Many families start with cohabitation, rather than marriage. But if a child is born to parents who aren’t married, paternity -- legal fatherhood -- isn’t automatic. It depends on both parents, mom and dad, signing a “Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity” (VAP) in front of an adult witness. This usually happens at the hospital or birthing center where the child was born, but it doesn’t have to. Parents can also get a form from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare or their local county court. After it is complete, the form must be filed with the Department of Public Welfare. Once that is done, the father’s rights will be established and his name will be added to the birth certificate.

Involuntary Paternity Actions Settle Fathers’ Rights When Parents Aren’t Married

But what if the child’s mother refuses to sign the VAP? A father can sign the form alone and have it filed, but that won’t establish his father’s rights. Instead, it gives the father the right to be notified of any adoption proceedings involving the child. Beyond that, a biological father will need to go to court to establish paternity “involuntarily” if he wants to get custody or set a visitation schedule.

A paternity action in the family court starts one of two ways:

  • The biological father files a Petition to Determine Paternity
  • The mother files a Complaint for Child Support

If either party says the man involved is not the biological father, the family law judge can order the father and the child to submit to genetic or DNA testing to confirm the biological connection. The court will use the results from that genetic testing to enter an Order of Paternity and establish the father’s rights to the child. Once paternity is established, mother and father have the same rights to the child. That includes the right to file for custody, child support, and visitation, and to direct the child’s education, religious training, and medical care.

Establishing paternity can be done any time before the child’s 18th birthday. When a child’s parents aren’t married, the paternity action often waits until after the family unit breaks down. Whether your child is 4 or 14, you can file the paperwork or the complaint to establish your father’s rights and protect your relationship with your child.

At Berman & Associates, our experienced family law attorneys know how to establish and protect fathers' rights in Pennsylvania. We will help you establish your paternity and set a custody and visitation schedule that makes sense for you and your family. We welcome you to contact us to speak with us about how we can help with your family law matter.