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What Rights Do Unmarried Parents Have to Custody and Visitation?

When a child is born to unmarried parents, only the mother is designated a legal parent automatically.  Until the child’s biological father establishes paternity, he has no legal rights to visitation, shared custody, or the opportunity to make decisions about the welfare of his child.

Besides a father’s legal rights, there are other benefits to seeking paternity recognition. These benefits include:

  • Identification of the father by name on the birth certificate
  • Financial support to the child, such as social security, veteran, and inheritance payments, life and health insurance benefits, and access to family health and medical history information
  • The right to be consulted about adoption

Once a father establishes paternity, the child can connect to their paternal family and identity, and the father can establish and maintain a life-long relationship with his child. Sometimes this process is easy. In other circumstances, the father might have to fight for custody and visitation rights. Regardless, the father must first establish paternity.

Custody and Visitation in Maryland

Courts in Maryland look at certain factors to decide the “best interests” of the child regarding custody and visitation rights.  Under the law, mothers and fathers are given equal consideration. In other words, neither is favored automatically.

A Maryland court might award sole custody, joint custody, or shared custody of the child. Each category of court-ordered custody incorporates both a legal and a physical component.

  • Legal custody means the decision-making authority for a child’s “education, health, religion, care, welfare and other important areas.”
  • Physical custody or “(child access/visitation) refers to where children live and how much time they spend with each parent.”  When a child spends at least 35% with each parent, it’s called shared physical custody.

Sole custody may include only legal custody, only physical custody, or both. Joint custody can be joint legal, shared physical, or a combination.

The court could also establish emergency custody, temporary custody, or split custody.

Regardless, unless the father has established paternity, he will have no legal rights to visitation, custody, or the opportunity to make decisions about the child.

Establishing Paternity in Maryland

There are several ways paternity can be established in Maryland if the parents are unmarried. The two most common methods are:

  • Both parents can sign an Affidavit of Parentage It’s a good idea to sign this affidavit when the child is born. It can be signed at any time before the child’s 18th birthday.
  • A man can declare himself as the father either in writing or orally if the mother doesn’t object.
  • Either parent can obtain a court order. The court might order genetic testing to establish paternity. If the father states under oath that he is the child’s father, and the mother does not object, genetic testing is not required.

Once paternity is established, Maryland courts play a decisive role in determining custody and visitation rights.

The Custody Process

The custody process in Maryland starts when a parent or guardian files a Complaint for Custody with the court.

If the parents can agree on terms, they document their agreement in writing (stipulate). If a judge decides their terms meet the “best interest” standard, the court will issue an enforceable consent order.

If the parents fail to agree on terms, the custody process could be complicated and time-consuming.  The court might order the parents to participate in co-parenting education and mediation.

An experienced family law attorney with the McKeon Law firm can help at all stages of the custody process. Our lawyers work tirelessly for our clients’ interests and rights to fair custody and visitation agreements that courts also find acceptable.

How a Lawyer Can Help

The Gaithersburg family attorneys at the McKeon Law firm are committed to helping individuals and families with a wide range of family matters.

No matter your custody or paternity situation, we will always put your interests and those of your children first. Contact us today for a consultation by calling (301) 867-7405 or by filling out a contact form.

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