You have the right to be an active participant in your child’s life, even if you are not married to the mother of your child. If your child was born outside of marriage , though, the state grants the mother legal custody until your child becomes 18 years old, unless a court has granted custody to another party. To ensure your rights as the father, you should begin to protect those rights early on by establishing paternity and, if necessary, by seeking joint custody of your child.
Why is it important to establish paternity?
Both parents should have the right to develop a close, loving bond with their child and be able to give input on raising the child. Unfortunately, unmarried fathers do not automatically have that right under family law in Arkansas. To ensure your right to be a part of your child’s life, the first thing you need to do is establish paternity.
In addition to the emotional benefits of having two loving parents involved in his or her life, a child gains several rights and privileges when paternity has been established. These include:
- access to your family medical history
- your financial support, including child support
- your life insurance and health insurance benefits
- the right to inherit from you
- the right to your Social Security and veterans’ benefits
How do you establish paternity?
You can establish paternity of your child as soon as your child is born, or at any time before the child turns 18, by signing an acknowledgment of paternity. You and the child’s mother sign the form, then have the form witnessed and notarized by a notary public. If an acknowledge of paternity is filed with the state, you will be listed as the child’s father on the birth certificate (if the birth certificate has already been filed, it can be amended to add your name). An acknowledgment of paternity establishes you as the legal father without court intervention or blood tests.
If your child’s mother refuses to sign an acknowledgment of paternity for any reason, you may file a petition to establish paternity in court. A Little Rock family law attorney can help you file a petition. In many cases, a request for DNA testing to establish paternity is filed in conjunction with a petition seeking joint custody and visitation.
DNA testing is the preferred method for paternity tests because it is readily available, non-invasive, and highly accurate. The results of a DNA test are generally available within a few weeks after DNA samples are obtained from all three parties: you, the child, and the child’s mother. Usually, a swab is used to obtain saliva from the inside of the cheek for the DNA test.
If you are worried that the child’s mother will attempt to place the child for adoption without informing you, and before you have a chance to assert your rights, you can also put your name on the Putative Father Registry . Once you are registered, you will be notified of any legal proceedings pertaining to your child. You can register before the child is born and will need to provide information about yourself and the child’s mother, as well as any information that you have about the child, including the child’s name and when and where he or she was born.
Does establishing paternity automatically grant joint custody and visitation?
No, it does not. Establishing paternity is only the first step in seeking joint custody of your child. Once you have established paternity, a court must conduct a custody hearing. If you and the mother agree to the terms of joint custody, then the case may be resolved more quickly.
To pursue custody, you must petition the circuit court in the county where your child lives. The court considers three things when determining whether or not to grant you custody of the child, including joint custody. First, the court must determine that you are fit to raise the child. Second, it must determine that you have cared responsibly for the child. This means that you have cared for, supervised, protected, and financially supported the child. Finally, it must determine that it is in the best interest of the child for you to have custody.
The court uses several factors to determine the best interests of your child . A few of the factors a judge may consider include:
- the child’s preference, if the child is old enough to have a reasonable opinion
- any history of substance abuse by you or the child’s mother
- any history of domestic violence by you or the child’s mother
- the working schedules of you and the child’s mother
- your and the child’s mother’s respective home environments
This is not an exhaustive list of factors the judge considers in a custody case. A Little Rock child custody lawyer can review all factors and the steps you should take if you want to seek joint custody of your child.
Courts treat mothers and fathers equally
In a child custody case, you might assume that the courts prefer granting the mother custody, especially for younger children. However, courts have rejected the “Tender Years Doctrine” that argued young children should always be placed with the mother unless the mother is unfit. Today, the courts begin a custody case with the parents on equal footing. Courts do not assume that one parent is automatically a better choice for the custodial parent. Therefore, an unmarried father walks into court with the same opportunity to obtain custody as the mother.
Contact an Arkansas family law attorney
If you are seeking joint custody of your child, or need to establish paternity in court, then consult with a child custody lawyer at Mann & Kemp PLLC. Contact our office at 501-222-4730.