Marriage is not a prerequisite to parenthood. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that in 2009 alone, a surprising 41 percent of all births were to unwed mothers. For married couples, parental rights are assumed and automatic. While unmarried couples enjoy many of the same parental rights as married couples, the route to establishing those rights is often more complex.
When a child is born to two married parents, the law generally assumes that the child is the biological offspring of both individuals. When a child is born to an unwed mother, the child's paternity isn't automatic. In most states, a father can opt to sign a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity noting that the child is his. This gives the child the same legal rights to benefits from her father that she would have had if her parents were married at the time of her birth. If the father refuses to sign a paternity acknowledgment, the mother can go to court and request that the state require the alleged father to submit to a paternity test to establish paternity. The father also has the right to go to court and request the right to take a DNA test and establish paternity – even if the mother objects.
The custodial parent of a child born out of wedlock has the right to request that the noncustodial parent make a financial contribution to the child's care in the form of child support. Paternity must be established before a court will order child support. Each state has its own system in place for determining exactly how much child support the noncustodial parent owes, but each state's system calculates child support payments based on the noncustodial parent's income. New Jersey, for example, uses all forms of income, including lottery winnings, overtime and unemployment, when calculating the amount of child support the noncustodial parent must pay.
The noncustodial parent does not have the automatic right to spend time with the child. He must file for and receive visitation through the court to earn that right. When a couple divorces, visitation rights for the noncustodial parent are generally included in the divorce decree. An unmarried couple, however, must go to court to establish visitation rights. Once a non-custodial parent has visitation rights, the custodial parent cannot legally deny her the time with her child that the court dictates she is entitled to have. If the custodial parent stands in the way of court-ordered visitation, the court may hold him in contempt.
Custody establishes who has the right to make decisions for a child and dictates who provides the bulk of the child's care. An unwed mother has full custody of her child until a court decides otherwise. The noncustodial parent can file for full or joint custody at any time. How successful a given custody case will be varies depending on each parent's history and case law in the state where the custody case takes place.