Unmarried Couples and Parenting: A look at the legal rights of parents and their children

Unmarried Couples and Parenting: A look at the legal rights of parents and their children

by Ann MacDonald, December 2009

Most people picture an "unwed mother" as a teenage girl, abandoned by her boyfriend as soon as her baby is conceived. However, a majority of unmarried parents are adults and are frequently in committed relationships even if they are not married. So, how does the marital status of these unmarried parents affect their legal rights and what impact do the laws have on their children?

Parental rights are generally established by state legislation and vary widely. In many cases, unmarried parents have fewer rights than those who are married. Unmarried parents have the added challenge of working through the legal system in order to assert their limited rights.

Nebraskan Luke Armour became intimately familiar with his home state's parental rights laws when he lost the custody battle for his daughter. Informed by his ex-girlfriend that she was pregnant and then notified of her intent to give the baby up for adoption, Armour hired an attorney to petition for custody. Unfortunately, the state of Nebraska only allows 30 days for unmarried fathers to assert their rights. An error in the attorney's office led to a missed deadline. Just like that, Armour lost the battle to be a father to his daughter.

Despite how common cohabitation is today, seven states still actually make it illegal for unmarried couples to live together. While these laws are rarely enforced, they add to the stigma for this type of family. Several states also forbid fornication, even in the privacy of a home between consenting adults. People living in these states are forbidden by federal law to claim an unmarried partner as a dependent on their income taxes; this can add a financial hardship to unmarried couples with families, especially when one parent stays at home to raise the children. Domestic partnership laws do not fill the gap, since they are usually not applied to heterosexual couples; this can also affect finances by limiting insurance coverage and other benefits.

So, how can you best guarantee your rights? It starts with the paperwork you fill out as soon as your baby is born. It is important to make sure both parents are listed on the child's birth certificate; this establishes you both as the legal parents and ensures your child will have benefits should something happen to you.

Of course, sometimes a couple is raising a child that is biologically related to only one of them. In this instance, the unrelated parent has no parental rights unless an adoption takes place. In order for an adoption to be completed, either both biological parents must agree (unless one is deceased) or the non-custodial parent has to be shown as unfit or guilty of abandonment. This process can be time consuming and expensive, but important in the event something happens to the biological parent or to secure benefits coverage. In the event of a separation, a non-biological parent generally has no claim to custody unless an adoption has taken place.

If you are an unmarried parent, it is critical to learn the local laws that affect your situation, since you cannot assume that you have the same rights as the married parents surrounding you. You also may need to take extra steps to ensure your child's future since in the event of your demise, your partner may not automatically be considered the legal guardian if he or she is not named on the child's birth certificate.