When unmarried parents decide to go their separate ways, both the mother and the father have equal parental rights. It can be more challenging to make this a reality for the father than it is for the mother, since mothers don't have to establish that they are mothers, and society generally assumes that a mother will raise her child. For the father who wants to remain equally involved in his child's life, it's sometimes necessary to legally enforce the equal parenting rights he's entitled to.
In undisputed cases, where the mother doesn't argue against who the father of her child is, establishing further rights is either a matter of the pair working the details out together or going to court to have a judge establish child support, visitation and custody rights. There are cases, however, where the mother disputes the paternity of her child---possibly to keep the father permanently out of her life. To establish paternity, and therefore equal rights, an unmarried father must sign a paternity affidavit, taking responsibility for his child. This eliminates the need for a court of law to order a scientific test. If the mother adamantly denies that he is the father, a paternity test will be ordered.
The paternity affidavit is a voluntary admission by the father that he is indeed the father. The mother also must sign this notarized affidavit. Even if the mother isn't contesting the identity of her child's father, the affidavit can be beneficial for the child. It establishes legal paternity---meaning equal parental rights---makes the father legally responsible for child support, and makes easier any future custody (in the case of a mother's death or incapacitation) or inheritance issues.
Once paternity is fully established in the eyes of the law, the unwed father will be responsible for child support. Jacqueline D. Stanley, attorney at law, writes in her book "Unmarried Parents' Rights" that those who have "the legal status of parent, whether through biology or through the law... [are] responsible for supporting the child." This holds equally true for divorced parents as it does for those who never married. Child support is determined by the child's needs and the financial ability of his parents to meet them. Many factors, which vary by state, go into calculating the amount of a monthly child support payment. The custodial parent, or the parent who has primary custody, is paid by the non-custodial parent.
A father's court-mandated visitation cannot be altered by his child's mother. Even if he fails to pay child support in a timely manner or misses payments altogether, the mother may not refuse visitation. Changes in visitation must be court ordered. Most visitation schedules are every other weekend, every other holiday, and certain weeknights; however, visitation can be any schedule the two parents agree to, or any schedule the judge orders if the parents aren't in agreement. A father who doesn't have primary custody of his child may possibly be granted a visitation schedule that allows him an equal amount of time with his child as that of the mother.
Both parents have an equal right to custody---neither parent's claim to custody supercedes the other's. Even if a father's name was never on his child's birth certificate, as long as his paternity has been established, he has equal rights. The court is asked to decide custody rights simply because the parents don't live together. In the past, sole custody was traditional---today, joint custody is far more common, allowing a mother and father to co-parent. The two most important factors in establishing custody are the child's desires (if the child can express them), and not disrupting the child's normal life---if he's thriving. While judges often give custodial preference to mothers, especially regarding younger children, there are some judges who grant custody of sons to their fathers and daughters to their mothers.