Child Custody Arrangements for Unmarried Parents: What You Need to Know
Massachusetts law recognizes that not every family looks the same. Even if parents are unmarried, they have parental rights and responsibilities, including those that concern child custody. In this article, we will provide an overview of how a child custody arrangement between unmarried parents can be established.
Basics of Custody
Commonwealth laws recognize two forms of custody: physical and legal custody. Physical custody determines where a child lives, i.e. the child’s “physical” location. The Courts generally determine physical custody by where the child sleeps each night. Legal custody allows a parent to make important decisions regarding their child’s upbringing and development, such as which school to attend, how to treat a medical issue or what religion the child will be brought up in.
A court may award either sole or shared custody of a child. As a note: shared custody is commonly called “joint” custody but is officially known as “shared” in Massachusetts law. Being granted shared custody for one type of custody does not necessarily mean being granted shared custody for the other. For example, a parent may be awarded sole physical custody because his home is zoned to the children’s school while the other parent plans to move a considerable distance away, but they will share legal custody with regard to major decisions about healthcare and other issues pertaining to their children.
In the case of unmarried parents, until a court order is issued, the unmarried mother has sole physical and legal custody of her child or children.
Need for Established Paternity
The first step in devising a custody plan for unmarried parents is to establish the child’s or children’s paternity if this has not already been done. Paternity establishes a biological father’s parental rights and is important to the well-being of the child in several ways These include enabling a court to order child support payments, eligibility for more extensive public assistance, the ability to receive health coverage through the father’s plan, establishing a parenting plan and a sense of identity and belonging.
When a child is born to a married woman, her husband is the legal father of the child by default, even if he is not the biological father. When the parents of a child are unmarried, the easiest way to establish paternity is immediately after the child’s birth at the hospital by signing the Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity form. If the father or mother will not sign this, a court order for paternity testing may be issued to compel the alleged father and the mother to submit biological samples.
Acting In a Child’s Best Interest
Provided that a child’s paternity has been established, a custody and/or parenting plan order may be granted if the parents do not live together, or if they subsequently go their separate ways. Just as the case for the children of divorcing married couples, a court will consider a multitude of factors in awarding physical and legal custody and establishing a parenting plan, with the child’s best interest always being the final goal.
Representing Your Family’s Best Interest
Whatever your marital or family situation may be, if you need a child custody or parenting arrangement, you need skilled legal representation to represent your interests, your children’s interests, and the best interest of your whole family. Call our office to discuss your needs today.