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What are unmarried Maryland fathers' child custody rights?

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In the past, Maryland couples often waited until marriage to start their families. Today, however, with the divorce rate hovering around 50 percent, many couples are delaying marriage or even foregoing it altogether. Nonetheless, many of these couples are having children out of wedlock, which can lead to child custody disputes, should the relationship end. Although the mothers primarily received custody in the past, a growing number of fathers are actively seeking custody and want to understand their legal rights.

First of all, paternity needs to be established. When the man is unmarried, he can be considered the father if he is listed on the birth certificate, has provided a written statement acknowledging he is the father or has been ordered by the court to provide child support.

Once paternity has been established, there is a form that must be filled out and submitted. The affidavit of parentage form must include the full name of the mother, father and child, as well as the signatures and Social Security numbers of both parents. There must also be statements from both parents attesting that the man is the father.

Once the man is legally considered the child's father, he has all the rights available to any father. He can petition for legal custody and seek visitation rights. It is even possible for an unmarried father to be the custodial parent. The courts will consider the man's lifestyle and relationship with the child and make a determination based on the best interests of the child. On the flip side, the man may also be required to pay child support. He should be aware of this responsibility before he begins the process of establishing paternity.

Source: ChildWelfare.gov, "The Rights of Unmarried Fathers," accessed on Dec. 13, 2014

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