In Mississippi, if a couple is married at the time a child is conceived or born, the man is automatically recognized as the legal father. However, just because parents are not married does not mean the father has no rights to his child. If the unmarried father establishes paternity, he can exercise his rights to his child.
Mississippi's Uniform Law of Paternity is set forth in Title 93, Chapter 9, Sections 1 through 49 of the state code. If paternity is in question, the father, mother or child can bring a petition before the court. The court will require that the mother, the child and the alleged father appear at an approved laboratory for a blood test. Laboratories are permitted to conduct court-ordered genetic testing if: (1) test results can be returned in 14 days, (2) the laboratory is licensed to do business in Mississippi and (3) it went through the required "competitive procurement process." When results are presented to the court, paternity is only formally established if the test shows that the alleged father is the father by a percentage of no less 98 percent.
Paternity can also be voluntarily acknowledged. The form can be signed at the hospital within 24 hours of the child's birth and filed with the Mississippi Department of Health. The Bureau of Vital Statistics will also accept forms at any time after the child's birth if the form is signed by both the mother and father and is also notarized. At that time, the birth certificate can be amended to list the alleged father as the legal father.
Once paternity is established in Mississippi, the unmarried father can file for custody of his child. Parents have equal rights to custody, and neither parent is given preference based on gender. Joint custody is preferred to give the child maximum contact with both parents. In the Mississippi court decision of Albright v. Albright, the court established the "best interests of the child" factors. They include: (1) each parent's ability to care for the child, (2) whether the parents' work obligations will interfere with raising the child, (3) the child's age, (4) the health of the parents and the child, (5) the child's emotional bond with each parent, (6) each parent's moral behavior, (7) any history of drug or alcohol abuse, (8) the child's preference, if the child is at least 12, (9) each parent's ability to provide a stable home environment and (10) any history of violence or abuse.
If an unmarried father does not seek custody or is not awarded custody, he also has the right to visitation. He is entitled to liberal contact by electronic and regular mail, as well as frequent phone conversations. In-person visitation schedules vary based on the availability of the child and the unmarried father. When the child is of school age, visitation is typically set for alternating weekends and holidays, as well as at least half of the summer vacation.