Child Custody for Unmarried Parents

For unmarried mothers and fathers, establishing child custody rights involves some unique legal issues. Our Bergen County family law attorneys offer personalized and compassionate legal representation for all New Jersey parents.

As hard as it is for some divorcing couples to resolve child-related legal issues, the task can be even more difficult for New Jersey parents who were never married. Unmarried parents often have additional steps to take before they can resolve any disputes regarding child custody, child support, and visitation. One of the first steps is to establish the father’s paternity.

Establishing an Unmarried Father’s Paternity in New Jersey

In New Jersey, paternity can be established at the time of a child’s birth. If the biological parents are in agreement regarding the father’s paternity, they can sign a document known as a Certificate of Parentage (or informally as an “acknowledgment of paternity”).

Signing a Certificate of Parentage gives the father the same parental rights and obligations as a father who is married at the time of his child’s birth.

This includes the right to seek custody and visitation, and the obligation to provide financial support for the child. Once both parents sign the Certificate of Parentage, the father’s name can be included on the child’s birth certificate as well.

certificate of parentage

As outlined by the New Jersey Department of Human Services, in order to use a Certificate of Parentage to establish paternity at the hospital, parents need to:

  • Meet with the birth certificate coordinator to go over the Certificate of Parentage;
  • Present valid identification (for both parents); and,
  • Fill out the Certificate of Parentage;
  • Have their signatures on the Certificate of Parentage witnessed by the birth certificate coordinator.

If you did not complete a Certificate of Parentage before leaving the hospital, you can complete the form later at your local registrar’s office or county welfare agency.

When a mother or presumed father disputes biological parentage and signing a Certificate of Parentage isn’t an option, either parent can request a court-ordered paternity test. This can be done at the time of birth or at any other time during the child’s life. In New Jersey, paternity tests are conducted by taking DNA samples from the potential father and the child using a cheek swab (or non-invasive buccal swab).

Establishing Child Custody and Child Support After a Paternity Test

After you establish paternity, then you can turn your attention to child custody and child support. For child custody, biological parents are expected to come up with a parenting plan which they submit to the court for approval. Your parenting plan should include detailed information about each parent’s childrearing responsibilities and how each parent will contribute to raising their child.

In joint custody arrangements, the parents share parental rights and responsibilities. In sole custody arrangements, which are less common, one parent has the exclusive right to provide a home and make decisions for their child.

parenting plan

Joint Custody Considerations for Unmarried Parents

Joint custody for unmarried parents could mean a child spends half the time with one parent and half the time with another. However, it is more likely that one parent will have primary physical custody. In this scenario, the other parent will have visitation rights according to a set schedule (e.g., every other weekend), and he or she may have special visitation rights for holidays and vacations. Unmarried parents should work together to develop a parenting plan that is as detailed as possible, as this will both (i) provide much-needed stability for their child, and (ii) help prevent contentious disputes in the future.

Child Support: Both Parents Need to Contribute

With parental rights come parental responsibilities, and this includes the responsibility to provide financial support for the child. In New Jersey, providing financial support is a requirement in all scenarios, whether the parents are married, unmarried, separated or divorced. In most cases, parents’ financial obligations are determined according to the New Jersey child support guidelines, although it may be appropriate to deviate from the guidelines under certain circumstances.

What Can You Do if Your Child’s Mother or Father Won’t Agree to a Parenting Plan or Child Support Schedule?

If you and your co-parent are truly unable to come to terms on your parenting plan and child support payment schedule, you may need to go to court and ask a judge to intervene. However, before going this route, it is important to explore the various alternatives that are available. Have you each hired your own attorneys? Have you tried mediation? Usually, both parents will eventually see that it is in their best interests to find a way to reach an agreement.

unmarried parents ask judge to intervene

For more information, we encourage you to read:

For married couples, establishing parental rights is automatic — but that is not the case for unmarried parents in New Jersey. Whether you are an unmarried mother or father, it is likely you could benefit from speaking with an attorney about solidifying your parental rights and ensuring that your partner or former partner meets his or her legal obligations.

Speak with a Bergen County Custody and Child Support Attorney in Confidence

If you would like help establishing paternity, putting together a parenting plan, or making sure you protect your rights regarding child support, we encourage you to contact us for a confidential initial consultation. To speak with an experienced family law attorney at Schultz & Associates, please call (201) 430-7845 or request an appointment online today.