Raising a child is already challenging enough, but trying to raise a child with a parent to whom you are not married can prove difficult. Unlike divorce matters, parents who were never married do not have an opportunity to settle child custody and support matters in court--oftentimes, one parent must fight for acknowledgement of his rights. Regardless, unmarried fathers have an equal claim to their children, and the rights of the mother do not automatically exceed the rights of the father. It is important to note, however, that the rights of the minor child trump the collective rights of both parents. This means that a decision made in the best interest of the child never contravenes the rights of the mother or the father, even if it appears to do so.
Every parent has an equal right to her child, whether they are married or unmarried, male or female, heterosexual or homosexual. No one parent has any more or less rights than any other, including the two parents of one child. Even if the mother currently has actual custody of the child, the father still has an equal claim to custody until a court rules otherwise.
Unmarried fathers have the unique responsibility to establish paternity. While married fathers benefit from presumed paternity, meaning a married father is always considered the biological father of any child born to the marriage, unmarried fathers must establish their paternity before they can assert their rights. This can be done by completing an acknowledgement of paternity at the time of the child’s birth or later on through DNA testing. It is important that you exercise your right to establish paternity as soon as possible, as you are not recognized as your child’s legal father until you do.
Physical Custody Rights
Once paternity is established, unmarried fathers have an equal claim to custody under Ohio custody laws. This means that you have just as much right to take custody of your child as the mother. If you do not currently have actual custody, you have the right to seek custody through the family court, even if the mother currently has the child. Be aware Ohio has a “presumption of custody” rule, meaning that an unmarried mother has presumed custody of any children she bears until the court establishes otherwise. If the mother currently has custody, and has for an extended period of time, also be aware the court may award the her physical custody unless she is deemed unfit or unable to continue. This is done to disrupt the child’s life as little as possible and would not impede your right to custody.
In the event you do not win physical custody, you still have a right to visitation. You can arrange visitation with the mother privately, but an order for visitation gives you actual leverage you can use to assert your rights if the mother attempts to deny them. Once a visitation order and schedule are in place, the mother cannot revoke or otherwise interfere with your right to spend time with your child for any reason--including failure to pay court-ordered child support. You have a right to determine when, where or how to spend time with your child provided your actions do not violate the visitation order, and the mother cannot force you to do otherwise.
Legal custody is the right to have a say in the way your child is raised, including the right to make decisions about your child’s education, medical care, religious upbringing and legal matters. Unmarried fathers have an equal right to legal custody in states that recognize legal and physical custody as two separate concepts. This is true even if you do not have physical custody or visitation. While the custodial parent has the sole right to control the child’s day-to-day care, both the mother and father must consult each other when making larger decisions for the child. In the event you and the mother disagree and you cannot reach a compromise, the mother’s choices do not automatically trump yours. Instead, you must submit the matter to the court, and after hearing both sides of the matter, the judge will make a final decision. If the mother chooses to evade this process and makes decisions without consulting you, you can enforce your right to legal custody by requesting a hearing with the judge.