What Are the Rights of Unmarried Fathers in California?

Hossein Berenji, Mar 04, 2021

Every year, thousands of babies in California are born to unwed mothers. In fact, just over 37 percent of babies born in the Golden State are born out of wedlock. While that might sound like a high percentage, California actually ranks in the middle of the pack. The state with the lowest percentage of births to unwed mothers is Utah at 19.2 percent and the state with the highest rate is Mississippi at 54.9 percent.

Children being born outside the bounds of marriage is common in the U.S. Given the high percentage of children born to unwed mothers, a number of positive developments have taken place over the last few years in California when it comes to the rights of unmarried fathers. While unmarried fathers have historically had very little by way of rights when it comes to visitation and custody, courts are beginning to grant fathers greater opportunities to be a part of their children’s lives.

There are several important details worth knowing related to the rights of unmarried fathers in California.

The Best Interest of the Child

The overall judicial philosophy that guides decisions in California as they relate to the rights of unwed fathers and mothers is doing what is in the best interest of the child regardless of how it affects the parents. While this might sound harsh if you are one of the parents, it is actually great news for unmarried dads.

Because having a father be a part of a child’s life is universally seen as in the best interest of the child, judges will often rule in such a way as to make sure the father is given every opportunity to be involved in raising his child. It is incumbent on the father, however, to pursue those rights via the courts.

No Inherent Rights

The reason a father needs to take the initiative and petition the court for rights such as visitation is because unmarried fathers don’t have inherent paternal rights. While many fathers might work out unofficial agreements with the child’s birth mother, in the eyes of the law, parental rights lie with the mother alone.

If after the birth of the child, the father wants to officially obtain parental rights, he may need to hire a lawyer and petition the court.

Voluntary Declaration of Parentage

There is, however, one other way a father can get parental rights of his child. If he and the child’s mother sign a Voluntary Declaration of Parentage, there is no need to go to court over the issue and the father obtains parental rights if he is the biological father.

Because the form is voluntary, there is no way to guarantee the child’s mother will sign it. It is also worth mentioning that the form is binding, and undoing it (meaning taking away the parental rights of the father) is quite challenging.

Rights and Responsibilities of an Unmarried Father

Many unmarried fathers are elated that they have multiple legal avenues for establishing parentage and being recognized by the courts as a child’s father. However, having parental rights also comes with responsibilities. In addition to being eligible for visitation (officially ordered by the courts) an unmarried father who has parental rights may also be obligated to pay child support. This is the case even and especially if the child lives with his or her mother.

For most unmarried fathers who want parental rights, the obligation of having to pay child support is outweighed by the opportunity to be able to have guaranteed visitation rights. For more information on how to establish parental rights, reach out to a qualified family law attorney.