In California, unmarried parents who separate may face many of the same difficulties that married parents who divorce face with regards to child custody. Courts will always put the needs and best interests of the child first and will typically do everything possible to make sure both parents stay involved in the child's life. Before child custody and support is determined however, unmarried parents may need to go the extra step to establish parentage.
In California, there is a legal presumption that a man who is married to the mother of a child is the child's natural parent, regardless of whether the child is biologically related to the father or not. Therefore, married couples who have had a child during the course of that marriage and then divorce do not need to establish parentage. This presumption, however, does not exist for unmarried parents.
Generally, if unmarried parents voluntarily sign a declaration of paternity, then they will become the legal parents of the child and assume all rights and responsibilities that come with parenthood. Once legal parentage is established, a parent can seek custody or visitation rights, and may have to pay child support.
Both unmarried mothers and unmarried fathers face their share of complications when it comes to child custody and child support. Having an enforceable child support order in place is essential so that the paying parent has a more difficult time evading their financial responsibilities. For example, a child support order allows for child support to be automatically deducted from the paying parent's paycheck. If a paying parent refuses to pay on time or refuses to pay at all, then the enforceable order will charge them penalties.
It is also important for unmarried parents to seek a court order with regards to child custody and visitation. This is particularly important for unmarried fathers who don't typically have a legal right to see their child without a court order. A child custody order can also affect how much a parent owes in child support because it establishes how much time each parent spends with the child. Without a custody order, the court may assume that the paying parent spends no time with the child and as a result require them to pay the highest amount of child support possible.
Both unmarried and married parents can benefit from speaking to a family law attorney to ensure that they are being adequately represented in these matters. An attorney can help protect parental rights by negotiating and litigating in a way that protects both a parent and his or her child's best interests.