Unmarried child custody rights

When parents are unmarried, the father is not usually given primary custody unless the mother is unfit. But if both parents have played an active and stable role in the child's life, joint custody can be awarded.

Best Interest

When determining custody arrangements, courts weigh a variety of factors, including the child's established patterns, each parent's ability to provide, and the child's right to maintain healthy relationships with both parents and their extended families.

Primary Caretaker

Identifying the child's primary caretaker can be important because the child often has a strong bond with this parent.


Courts can award custody or visitation to unmarried parents, stepparents, grandparents, other adult relatives or caretakers, although the rights of biological parents are often given greater weight.


Many people incorrectly believe unmarried fathers do not have a right to custody. While it is automatically assumed an unmarried mother will have primary custody, the child's father can seek joint custody or visitation through the courts.


Unmarried fathers must establish paternity before a court will award them custody or visitation. This can be accomplished by signing forms after the child is born or through a paternity action.

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About the Author

Rita E. Garwood graduated magna cum laude from Kutztown University's professional writing program in 2006. She was a writing assistant for KU's University Relations department. Her work has appeared in the Tower, the Keystone,, Artist's Lair magazine and Demand Studios. She currently works as a paralegal.