Many people think of custody issues as only existing in a divorce. This is not true. Custody issues exist whenever parents end their relationship – whether they were married or not. When parents are not married, the legal action to determine the parentage of the child and the rights and responsibilities of each parent takes place in a proceeding to establish a parental relationship between the father and the child (often referred to as a “paternity action”). No such action is necessary to determine the parentage of the mother because she gave birth to the child and therefore is genetically linked. (Note: this discussion does not address surrogacy, artificial insemination, adoption and other means by which individuals in same sex and opposite sex relationships can become parents).
According to recent research, unmarried parents are a growing segment of our population. On February 17, 2012, The New York Times published an article titled, For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage. This article reports fascinating research on marriages and children born to married couples and unmarried couples. It also has fascinating conclusions drawn by the author and others about the research. Here are some excerpts of the research from this article:
By the mid-1990’s, “a third of Americans were born outside marriage. Congress, largely blaming welfare, imposed tough restrictions. Now the figure is 41 percent — and 53 percent for children born to women under 30, according to Child Trends, which analyzed 2009 data from the National Center for Health Statistics.”
“73 percent of black children are born outside marriage, compared with 53 percent of Latinos and 29 percent of whites. And educational differences are growing. About 92 percent of college-educated women are married when they give birth, compared with 62 percent of women with some post-secondary schooling and 43 percent of women with a high school diploma or less, according to Child Trends.”
“Almost all of the rise in nonmarital births has occurred among couples living together. While in some countries such relationships endure at rates that resemble marriages, in the United States they are more than twice as likely to dissolve than marriages. In a summary of research, Pamela Smock and Fiona Rose Greenland, both of the University of Michigan, reported that two-thirds of couples living together split up by the time their child turned 10.”
A non-marital relationship into which children have been born is not a relationship from which each parent should just walk away. It is important for the child’s sake that the father’s parentage is legally established; that each parent is assured of having frequent and continuing contact with the child consistent with the child’s best interest; and that appropriate child support is ordered. All of these actions benefit the child. Further, it is important to establish parentage so that the child can access Social Security benefits and establish inheritance rights when his or her father dies. If the father is not legally established as the parent of a child, that child will be denied his or her Social Security and inheritance rights after the father’s death. There are possible steps which may be taken to establish parentage after the father’s death, but this can all be avoided by parents being proactive while the child is still a minor (under age 18 in California and most other states).
Even when parents are cooperative with each other after their non-marital relationship ends, any child of that relationship remains without a legal parent if parentage is not formally established. This is to the financial detriment of the child. Hopefully this discussion will prompt non-marital parents, whether or not they are still in their relationship, to consider establishing parentage as part of their obligation to their child.