Can unwed fathers gain child custody rights?

You and your girlfriend had a child together, but were never married. Now the relationship is over and you are worried that you are seeing less and less of your child.

You each have your own home and your ex-girlfriend lives with your child. When you tried to discuss co-parenting options, she told you that it was not a possibility. What are your rights as a father, and how can you make sure that you have access to your child?

Establishing paternity

Under Pennsylvania law, a child is automatically linked to its mother through birth. It is a little bit more difficult for fathers. In order to have a legal right to your child, you must establish paternity.

You can either establish paternity "voluntarily" or "involuntarily". To voluntarily establish paternity, you and the child's mother must sign a document stating that you are the child's father.

If the child's mother does not want to recognize you as the father, you will have to establish paternity involuntarily. To do so, you may need to undergo DNA testing to prove your biological tie with the child.

Child custody agreement

Once you establish paternity, you can pursue a child custody arrangement, or visitation rights, depending upon your desired level of involvement. There are several types of arrangements to consider:

  • Sole physical custody: Typically, fathers are not able to gain sole physical custody of their child unless the mother is unfit to parent the child.
  • Joint physical custody: Under joint physical custody, you and the child's mother create a set schedule that determines when each parent has care of the child.
  • Legal custody: Legal custody gives you the right to make important decisions for your child - for issues such as education, medical decisions or religion.
  • Visitation: Even if your child is not going to live with you, you can arrange for official visitation rights so that you are regularly present in your child's life.

Be warned that child arrangement disputes can become heated. One parent may try to dig up personal dirt from the past to make the other look unfit for custody. Be ready to address any objectionable past actions or charges.

Overall, the court's goal is to create an arrangement that is in the best interest of your child. Speak with an attorney who can help you determine a child custody arrangement that works for the entire family.

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