A Bellevue Child Custody Attorney Discusses the Rights of Unmarried Parents

March 28, 2022

When people hear the phrase “custody rights,” they typically think of divorced parents battling it out over children—deciding on who gets every other weekend and which holidays and who has to pay what amounts of child support. But unmarried parents still have custody rights—and battles—too. Hiring a Bellevue Child Custody Attorney is an important part of getting these rights situated and stated on paper so that you and the other parent of your child (or children) both have a fair amount of time with your family and are sharing responsibilities in the way that works best for your situation.

Even if you think that your situation is amicable and would be fine without legal assistance, you never know what could happen in the future. It’s important to secure legal documentation and get things in order so that there aren’t hiccups down the road. The Aberdeen Law Firm in Bellevue, WA will help you get everything under control, even if you have never been married.


Establishing Parental Rights

When parents are unmarried, establishing paternity (and thus, parental rights for the father) is a bit complicated. First, the father must prove his paternity to the child. Without this, the father won’t automatically receive custody rights and it will all go to the mother, even if the father has been active in the child’s life from the beginning up until this point.

The reason for this is that if the mother and father were not married, any man in the woman’s life could act as a father to the child without actually being so. If two people are already married, paternity is automatically assumed. It is also automatically assumed if the two people are living in a domestic partnership (have lived together for seven or more years and have registered their relationship with the state).


  • In Washington state, a domestic partnership is also called a meretricious relationship. Although there isn’t a specific definition for what qualifies a relationship as meretricious, the court will look at how long the couple has been living together, how long the couple has been together overall, the reason they are together, how they have joined their lives, and what their intent in this joining was.


To establish parental rights, the father can sign a paternity acknowledgment form, if he has not already done so at birth (once he does so, his name will be placed on the child’s birth certificate). He could also ask the court to perform genetic testing to confirm that the child is biologically his. This is usually only done if the mother refuses to sign off on a paternity acknowledgment for the father.

Once these rights are established, the father has the right to see the child regularly, usually just as much as the mother does. The father also has the right to decide on things for the child, such as medical and educational decisions. The father must provide for the child financially, though, and this legal obligation lasts until the child is an adult.


Voluntary or Involuntary Acknowledgement

In an ideal situation, every child would have a father who voluntarily acknowledges paternity. This does not need to be done with any genetic testing—the mother and father both simply affirm that the man is the biological father of the baby and they sign a “Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity.


This can be done at the hospital when the baby is born or afterward at any local county health department office or child support office. This form must be witnessed, notarized, and then filed with the Washington State Department of Health, Center for Health Statistics. (There is no fee if this is filed within five days of the child’s birth.)

Unfortunately, though, this is not always the case. Sometimes the mother is adamant that the person claiming to be the father is not, and sometimes the father says that the child in question is absolutely not biologically his. In cases like this, the court will issue an order to establish parentage.

If the father does not show up in court during these proceedings, the court can choose to automatically assume him to be the biological father and require him to fulfill his visitation and financial duties, as requested by the mother and ordered by the court. This is called a “default order.”

Parentage can also be determined with a DNA sample. To do this, both the mother, the child and the father in question have their cheeks swabbed and the DNA samples are compared. This provides results that are 99.9% accurate.


Equal Parental Rights in Washington State

Washington does not automatically give full custodial rights to the mother if there are a mother and father who have acknowledged the child. A father who is proved to be biological can pursue custody just in the same way a mother can, and has just as much right to equal time with the child. Joint custody is quite common in Washington.


Benefits to Establishing Parental Rights

There are benefits to all parties involved when a child’s father is determined early on.

Established paternity is helpful to the child in that he or she can then have a relationship with both parents. Children who have a healthy, steady relationship with both parents (whether they are in the same home or not) can function more easily, have a stable emotional development, and have double the amount of love and support while they are growing up. Established paternal lines also ensure that the child can know about their family history, both socially and medically. They will also receive their full deserved benefits from the father such as medical insurance, Social Security benefits, possible veteran’s benefits, and life insurance or inheritance later on down the road.

Mothers benefit tremendously from established parentage, as well. A determined father means that she has someone to share the parenting journey with, whether or not that person chooses to co-parent in a deep and meaningful way. It means she can share responsibilities and that she is not on her own to raise her child. Everyone knows that raising a child is one of the most expensive things in life, too, so having someone who knows the child is theirs and is obligated to help pay for food, a home, and educational expenses takes quite a burden off of the mother. If the established father ever refuses to pay his share of the child support, the mother also has grounds to have that support become court-ordered or the father’s wages can be garnished.

There are so many benefits to the father, though, as well—it’s not all required money out the door! Many fathers want to establish legal rights to their child so that they can ensure the ability to see them over their entire childhood, no matter what the mother decides to do with her life or where she wants to live. They can petition the court for an equal or certain amount of time with the child to ensure that they have adequate time to build a relationship that will last into adulthood. Developing a bond with a child takes time, and the earlier a father can establish a regular routine and become a steady part of the child’s life, the better. Legal rights also make sure that the father can participate in the activities of the child’s life and be there just as much as the mother is.


Unfit Parents

Unfortunately, married or not, some people are simply not in a season of life to be adequate parents to a child. The legal definition of an unfit parent is someone who does not provide the appropriate guidance, care, discipline, or support for a growing child. An unfit parent is also someone who abuses or neglects their child, or abuses substances so that they cannot provide for that child.

If you or your partner (or ex-partner) fall into any or most of these situations, you or they may be considered unfit to care for the child and the majority (or possibly all) of the custody would fall to the other person.

  • Does not set age-appropriate limits
  • Does not understand or respond to the child’s needs
  • Does not have a positive history of being involved in the child’s care
  • Does not resolve conflict well with the other parent regarding custody matters
  • Confirmed allegations of child abuse
  • History of domestic violence
  • History of substance abuse
  • History of psychiatric illness or mental instability
  • Does not function well in social situations or mainstream society
  • Child has a negative attitude or feeling toward the parent


Hiring a Bellevue Child Custody Attorney to Help You and Your Family

All in all, there are so many benefits to having paternity established outside of a married relationship. Essentially, it keeps all parties involved safe and secure and protects the child and their future.

Aberdeen Law Firm in Bellevue, WA is experienced in family law and in helping non-married people determine the best plan for their families as far as custody and visitation rights, child support payments, and living situations.


Don’t go this path alone. Let us help you establish parentage (either voluntarily or involuntarily), determine appropriate custody limits and visitation schedules, figure out who needs to pay what amounts of money to whom, and who is the best fit for the child to live with the help of Bellevue Child Custody Attorney. Then, you and your child’s other parent can concentrate on the most important part—loving your son or daughter.


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