Child support and parental rights are closely related topics. They can also be complex and difficult to understand. For a parent, understanding key issues related to parental rights is critical to establishing and maintaining a healthy relationship with a child. These issues include unmarried fathers’ rights regarding their names on birth certificates, how courts determine legal parentage and what to do when a mother is keeping her child away from the father.
A parent can be required to pay child support only if he's a legal parent, but this does not grant him the right to spend time with the child.
Fathers paying child support typically have rights to their children, but this is not always the case. In every court decision involving a child, the child’s well being is the most important issue of all and sometimes, supporting the child’s well being means restricting the father’s rights.
Understanding Parental Rights
Parental rights are the rights a parent has to a child. Each state sets its own laws regarding legal parentage and parental rights, and disputes surrounding parental rights are handled by state-level civil courts.
A child can have only two legal parents, and they can be of either gender. When a child’s parent remarries and the parent’s new spouse wants to adopt the child and gain parental rights, the child’s other parent’s parental rights must be terminated. There are a few ways parental rights can be terminated. A parent can voluntarily terminate his rights so the adoption can proceed, or the court can terminate them. A parent can have his rights involuntarily terminated only if the court deems that doing so is in the child's best interest.
Parental rights include:
- The right to custodial time or visitation with the child
- The right to pursue child support to help cover the costs of raising the child
- The right to object to the child’s proposed adoption
- The parent’s right to list the child as a dependent on his taxes
- The parent’s right to list the child as a dependent on his health insurance
- The right to petition to change the child’s legal name
- The right to make legal decisions on the child’s behalf
Without parental rights, a parent has no right to a relationship with her child. To illustrate this point, imagine that a single mother gets married and her husband adopts her child. By adopting the child, the husband becomes the child's stepfather, making him the child's legal father. If the mother and stepfather divorce, the stepfather has the same rights and responsibilities to child custody and child support that the mother has. If he had not adopted the child, he would have no right to seek these in the divorce.
Establishing Parental Rights
In order for a parent to seek child support or be required to pay it, both parents must establish their parental rights to the child. When a baby is born to a married mother, both the mother and her spouse are automatically granted parental rights. In many states, this is also the case when a recently divorced woman gives birth, as long as she was married when the child was conceived. When a baby is born to an unmarried mother, her partner must take additional steps to establish his paternity, also known as parentage. Certain states still use terminology like "paternity" and other language specific to heterosexual parents in their parentage laws, whereas others, like Illinois, have updated their laws to use gender-neutral language, understanding that many same-sex couples raise children and face challenges surrounding parental rights.
The most straightforward way for a parent to establish his parental rights is to sign a Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity form, a legal document that both parents sign stating that they acknowledge the mother’s partner as the child’s other parent. Although the term “paternity” implies that these forms are reserved for fathers, a mother’s same sex partner can also sign a Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity to establish her legal parentage.
This is not the only way to establish parentage and thus, parental rights. A parent can also establish her child’s parentage through the court system, with or without the child’s other parent’s cooperation. The process varies from state to state, but typically involves petitioning the court to legally determine a child’s parentage. The court process for determining parentage often involves genetic testing to determine whether a man is the child’s biological father, but this is not a requirement in all cases. Biological parentage does not guarantee legal parentage, and it is possible for the court to determine that establishing a child’s legal parentage based on biological parentage is not in her best interest. For example, state programs may not attempt to establish a child’s paternity in cases involving forcible rape or incest.
When the court establishes an individual’s parentage, that individual may be granted parental rights to the child. Once parental rights are granted, the court may limit them as it deems appropriate, such as enforcing restrictions on the parent’s visitation time with the child. Restrictions the court can impose include:
- Prohibiting overnight visits
- Requiring that a third party supervise the visits
- Requiring that visits occur in a specific location
- Prohibiting the parent from engaging in certain activities during visits, like driving with the child in the car
If a Father Pays Child Support, Does He Have Visitation Rights?
Not necessarily. Although visitation rights and the requirement that a parent pay child support are both part of having parental rights, paying child support does not automatically grant a parent visitation rights. The court may deny a parent visitation rights for a variety of reasons, such as the parent’s substance addiction, the parent’s history of violence toward the child or toward others, the parent’s involvement in criminal activity or the parent’s prior unwillingness to cooperate with court orders.
How to Handle a Mother Keeping a Child Away from a Father
A parent cannot deny her child’s other parent rights to the child. When a mother keeps her child away from a father despite a child custody order, the mother is in contempt of court. This can lead to the court reevaluating the child’s custody arrangement and opting to alter it, potentially reducing the mother’s custodial time with the child or even terminating it outright. A father whose former partner continually violates their child custody arrangement should notify the family court handling the case about the violations, so there is a record of them. If the mother does not comply with their child custody order after the father requests that she do so, the father can file a petition to modify the child custody order.
When a parent petitions to modify a child custody order, he must provide reasons why altering it would be in the child’s best interest. Building and maintaining a relationship with the parent who is willing to comply with the court’s orders is often a good reason to modify a child custody order. The court may require that the parents attend a hearing at which they present their arguments regarding the arrangement and its proposed changes. If the child custody order is modified, the parents must comply with its new terms. These terms can include supervised visitation between a parent with limited parental rights and the child. In New Jersey, as in many other states, the court may require that visitation occur in a state-approved visitation venue under the supervision of trained volunteers who ensure the child's safety.
Seeking Child Support Help
Getting child support help can be difficult. The most effective way for a parent to receive child support help is to hire an experienced child support lawyer who can help her navigate her state’s child support system and applicable laws.
Child support orders are created using relevant information about the child’s parents, like their incomes and other financial obligations. In most states, child support orders are created according to established formulas. Just like a child custody order, a child support order can be modified when it is no longer appropriate for the child or his parents. Similarly, child support orders usually end when the child turns 18 or graduates from high school, but they can be extended into adulthood if the child has special needs.