Child custody laws in California for unmarried couples

The mother

In accordance with the law, unwed mothers automatically gain custody of their children when they are born in California. You need not have to take any legal action to assert your custodial rights.

As an unmarried mother, you are fully responsible for:

  • taking care of your child;
  • determining his/her living arrangements, education, and health care; and
  • determining how much contact your child’s father will have with your child (if applicable).

The father

In accordance with the law, a father who isn’t married has no rights to his child if he hasn’t established legal paternity.

The law immediately assumes that married parents are the legal parents of the child, but this is not the case with unmarried couples bearing a child figuring out child custody.

Generally, it is not enough to have your name listed on the birth certificate of your child. Establishing legal paternity is the sole factor that will give you your right to see your child and to make decisions regarding his/her wellbeing.

Without legal paternity, your child’s mother may also move away and even deny you visitation rights—when this happens, there’s not much to do but to accept and comply. Although the court may grant you sole custody of your child if you can demonstrate that:

  • your child’s mother is not fit to rear him/her; or
  • you have served as the primary caregiver of the child.

Establishing parentage

Establishing that someone is a parent of a child when an unmarried couple splits is vital to ensure that custody and visitation are given to the rightful person. This will be challenging as there is no legal process such as marriage between them.

Unwed fathers do not automatically obtain biological parental rights because there is no legal proof that you are the birth father of the child. You have no rights until you are the actual legal father in the state.

To establish you as your child’s father, you have to do a voluntary declaration through signature stating so. Paternity is the legal recognition that you are the father of your child.

Assuming full rights

Regardless of the parents signing a declaration or the courts deciding that the mother and father are legitimate parents, California will assume that both parties have full rights and all responsibilities in taking care of the child.

Parents who are established as a mother and a father can proceed with custody arrangements, battles, or lawsuits—even if they are not within bound by marriage. There are additional difficulties that parents will be facing during custody battles if these full rights are not an assumption by the state.

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