To ensure a legal custody agreement between unmarried parents, one party must file a suit in the jurisdiction where the child resides. Each state has a specific name and description for this type of suit, and who has primary custody of the child or if custody is joint, visitation, child support and other issues. For instance, Texas has a Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship. While it may not seem necessary when everyone is getting along, this is the ideal time to produce a legal custody agreement. The worst time to attempt to produce an agreed custody agreement is during time of dispute.
Interview and hire a qualified family law attorney. Whether the parties are in agreement as to a parenting plan and custody arrangement, or at odds, a qualified attorney will advise as to the best course of action depending on the situation. While a single attorney can prepare a custody agreement for both parties, keep in mind that each party may have different interests requiring separate attorneys.
Establish paternity. In most states, unmarried fathers must sign an acknowledgment of paternity to be listed on the birth certificate. If the birth certificate does not list the father, paternity can be established during the suit. If there is any question or doubt as to paternity, a paternity test should be done. This is necessary to ensure that both parents are legally acknowledged.
Discuss a parenting plan. Courts appreciate parents who are able to amicably work out a shared custody and visitation arrangement without legal hand-holding. Parties should discuss the type of parental conservatorship that will apply, who will retain primary residence of the child, when visitation will occur, where it will occur and a host of other issues affecting custody. The amount and type of issues that need to be addressed are another reason to retain the services of an attorney. Keep in mind during discussions that courts consider “the best interest of the child” a controlling factor. If the parties are unable to agree on a parenting plan or custody agreement, a hearing will be held and a judge will decide.
Calculate child support. Parties can agree on the amount of child support, or child support can be calculated through state guidelines. Always make child support payments through state disbursement units to ensure proper credit is given. Failure to pay child support can result in criminal charges.
Reduce agreements to writing. If an agreement between parties has been made, include every detail of custody, visitation, child support, medical support and other issues addressed by your attorney in a final order. Both parties, any attorneys and a judge must sign the final orders whether agreed orders or not.
Work together. Follow the custody agreement, but be willing to give leeway to one another from time to time for special occasions, vacations and emergencies. Always understand that a child should not be used against another parent in a negative manner.
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