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How Does Child Custody Work For Unmarried Parents?

On Behalf of | Jun 13, 2023 | Child Custody

There are unique legal considerations those seeking child custody in Texas must be aware of when they weren’t ever married to their co-parent. 

When a married couple has a child in Texas, they are automatically recognized as legal parents and have equal rights to child custody. But when the parents aren’t married, only the mother is legally recognized as a parent. Of course, this is only in the eyes of the law; parents are technically free to do whatever they want. 

This arrangement can work fine for those who can figure out how to parent effectively between themselves. But if unmarried parents can’t do it independently, they’ll need to take legal action to assert their rights and put arrangements that work in place.

Establishing Paternity In Texas

Because unmarried mothers are the only legally-recognized parents, unmarried fathers must officially establish their paternity to seek custody of their child.

There are three ways to establish paternity in Texas:

  • Voluntary paternity establishment
  • Agreed paternity order
  • Court-ordered paternity

The most common way unmarried fathers establish paternity is through a process called voluntary paternity establishment. In this process, parents sign an Acknowledgment of Paternity, a document that officially names the father as the child’s legal father. This document doesn’t give the father many legal rights beyond that.

An agreed paternity order is a court order that both parents and judge sign that states the father as the child’s legal father. This order also outlines the father’s rights regarding child custody, visitation, child support and medical support. If opting for this process, both parents must be able to agree on the terms of the paternity order.

Court-ordered paternity can be helpful when the parents disagree on who the father is. In these cases, a judge orders the alleged father to take a paternity test and submit it to the court. The test consists of both parents and the child or children having their cheeks swabbed. A paternity test is up to 99% percent accurate. The test may occur in court, at a Child Support Office, or a local clinic. Over-the-counter tests are not acceptable forms of evidence in court. Like an agreed paternity order, court-ordered paternity accomplishes establishing a legal father and giving him rights regarding child custody, visitation, child support, and medical support.

Everyone Benefits From Establishing Paternity 

While the benefits of establishing paternity are clear for unmarried fathers, there are also benefits for the mother and child. 

Establishing paternity allows the child to know who their father is if they don’t already, which can give them a stronger sense of identity and foster their connection with their father and extended family on the father’s side. Through this process, children may also become eligible to receive an inheritance from their father and his medical benefits, Social Security, and possibly veteran’s benefits.

Establishing paternity benefits mothers because it makes fathers legally responsible for their children. Giving fathers custody of or visitation with their children and receiving child and medical support from them can help offset the burden on mothers. 

An Attorney Can Help You On Your Journey

If you’re navigating child custody matters as an unmarried parent in Texas, an attorney can help you find your way and protect your and your child’s rights.