What legal rights do unmarried parents have?
Children have the right to a relationship with both of their parents. However, if unmarried couples decide to separate, the father may have different rights to those of the child’s mother and a married father.
What rights do unmarried fathers have in the UK?
Many fathers believe that they have automatic parental responsibility to their children when they are born if they are the child’s biological father.
When you have a child, the mother automatically has parental responsibility. A married father will also automatically have parental responsibility. However, an unmarried father only inherits parental responsibility under specific conditions and, without parental responsibility will have very few rights surrounding their child.
If you are an unmarried father, you will only acquire parental responsibility if one of the following applies:
- You obtain parental responsibility in a family court, either by a parental responsibility order or an order that the child lives with you; or
- You enter into a formal and written parental responsibility agreement with your child’s mother; or
- Your child was born after 1st December, AND you registered the birth jointly with your child’s mother and are named on the birth certificate.
If you do not have parental responsibility for your child, the child’s mother can make decisions about your child’s upbringing without consulting you. However, you will still be liable for child maintenance payments and you can still make applications to the court to in respect of your child.
What is parental responsibility?
It is important to understand what parental responsibility is, how it works, and whether or not it is granted.
Parental responsibility covers all of the rights and responsibilities you have concerning your child. As a father, having parental responsibility provides you with equal rights and responsibilities in respect of the child as the mother or anyone else who has parental responsibility.
Parental responsibility includes responsibility for the following aspects of your child’s life:
- The wellbeing and care of your child
- Feeding and clothing your child
- Making key decisions about your child’s education
- Making key decisions surrounding your child’s health
- Representing your child during legal proceedings
- Deciding where your child should live
- Deciding on your child’s religious upbringing.
Parental responsibility means you will have a say in the way your children are raised. This does not mean you will be involved in every decision as part of their everyday lives, such as what they eat or wear. However, your consent will be needed to make important decisions about their lives, such as where they live, what school they attend, their name and medical treatment.
Who has parental responsibility?
It is often assumed that a child’s biological father automatically gains parental responsibility when a child is born. However, you only have parental responsibility if:
- you’re the child’s mother
- you’re the child’s father and were married to the child’s mother at the time of birth
- you have legally adopted a child
- your child was born after 1st December 2003, and your name is on the birth certificate
How do unmarried fathers get parental responsibility?
To gain parental responsibility for your children, you will need to:
- marry your child’s mother, or
- enter into a parental responsibility agreement with the mother, or
- obtain a parental responsibility order through the courts
As your child’s father, you are entitled to apply to the court to get parental responsibility, and the following factors will be taken into consideration:
- Your commitment as a father
- The attachment between you and your child
- Your reasons for applying for the order
The court will take your child’s best interests into account, and this will determine their decision on whether or not to grant parental responsibility.
In many cases, fathers can arrange a parental responsibility agreement with the child’s mother rather than go through court proceedings. This type of agreement is most appropriate if:
- you are an unmarried father and your name is not on your child’s birth certificate
- you are marrying and would like to take parental responsibility for your new partner’s child (the is a step-parent parental responsibility agreement)
How long does parental responsibility last?
If you gain parental responsibility through a parental responsibility order or agreement, this responsibility lasts until:
- your child is 18
- an adoption order is made
- a court order removes parental responsibility
n unmarried father’s parental responsibility can be ended through a court order or as the result of an adoption or placement order.
Child access rights for unmarried fathers
Many parents who separate agree between them with whom their children should live and when they will spend time with the other parent, and this is usually in the child’s best interests. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to come to an agreement, especially at the end of a relationship.
Your rights to access with your child
Even if you have parental responsibility, it does not provide you with the automatic right to contact with your child if you are not the parent the child lives with. It is the child who has a right to spend time with both of their parents.
In most cases, parents are able to come to an agreement between themselves around who the children will live with and when they will spend time with the other parent. However, there may be some circumstances where you are unable to agree on the arrangements.
If you are unable to agree with the other parent, either through discussion, mediation or negotiation through solicitors, you can apply to the court for a child arrangements order. This can determine who your child should live with and what contact they can have with the non-resident parent.
You can also apply for orders which prevent the other parent from doing something that you don’t agree with (prohibitive steps order) or deals with a specific issue such as schooling (specific issues order).
In all circumstances, the court’s decision will be based primarily on what is in the best interest of the child.
What is a child arrangement order?
If you’re unable to come to an agreement with your child’s mother, you can apply to the family court for a child arrangement order, which will outline where your child will live and when they will spend time with the other parent. As part of the child arrangement order, the court may also order that a father should be granted parental responsibility
When considering a child arrangement order, a court will always ensure the child’s best interests are met.
Can I apply for my child to live with me?
The court will generally try and maintain the status quo when deciding who the children should live with and who the child should spend time with. Removing a child from the care of the parent who they normally live with on a day to day basis can be very distressing and will often be discouraged, particularly without prior discussion. However, if you feel it would be in your child’s best interests to live with you, or you have genuine concerns about the child’s safety and welfare when they are with the parent they live with, this may be necessary. You should take legal advice.
You can make an application to the court for an order that the children live with you. This can be on an urgent basis if there are safeguarding concerns.
What factors do the courts consider when determining custody or visitation rights?
The court will consider the following when coming to a decision:
- Your child’s wishes and feelings, which are given more consideration when the child is older
- The physical, educational and emotional needs of the child
- The effect of a change in circumstance on your child
- The age, sex and background of your child
- Your child’s cultural, religious or disability needs
- If your child is as risk of suffering harm or has suffered harm
- Your capabilities in relation to your child’s needs
Child maintenance is a regular financial contribution to help with your child’s living costs. It is paid by the parent who does not care for the child on a day to day basis, irrespective of whether they are spending time with the child or whether they have parental responsibility. This can be agreed between you or, failing that, through the Child Maintenance Service.
Graysons has expertise in dealing with issues involving unmarried couples and couples who have separated. Our expert solicitors can explain what rights you have as a parent and help you to exercise those rights through the courts if necessary.