Your girlfriend had your child, but you’re not married. Unfortunately, your relationship isn’t working out, and it’s time to move on. What are your rights? Does your breakup mean that your role in your child’s life is whatever your ex wants?

The answer is no! Your rights can be equal to those of the mother if you take the right steps. Stay as involved as possible in your child’s life, plan properly, and don’t be afraid to take legal action to establish and enforce your rights if and when necessary.

How do I establish my rights?
To establish your rights as an unmarried father in MA, you need a court order addressing paternity if you’re not on the birth certificate, as well as the issues of custody, parenting time, and support.

You can do this by filing the appropriate documents at your local Probate and Family Court.

If paternity is contested, you must file a Complaint to Establish Paternity. As part of the process, you may have to participate in a DNA test to establish that you’re the father.

On the other hand, if you’re already on the birth certificate, you must file a Complaint for Custody, Support, and Parenting Time.

Essentially, both cases address the same issues, but a Paternity Complaint is necessary if you’re not on the birth certificate.

Issues addressed to establish rights
There are a few issues addressed whenever a case is filed to establish rights regarding a child.

Paternity establishes that your’e the father. As detailed above, this step isn’t necessary if you’re already on the birth certificate.

Legal custody establishes which parent makes the major decisions for the child: for example, for medical care, schooling, and religion. The default is shared legal custody. Generally, the court wants both parents as involved as possible in the life of the child. However, if there are issues of violence or the relationship between the parties is so toxic that they can’t communicate, the court will consider awarding sole legal custody.

Physical custody is about how much time the child spends with each parent. The child can spend most of the time with one parent: this is known as sole custody. Or the parents can have the child for an approximately equal amount of time: this is called shared physical custody.

Parenting time is determined by a number of factors, including which parent has been the primary care parent, the parties’ schedules, where they live, their bond with the child, and other factors.

Courts are much more likely today than in the past to order significant parenting time for a father. As mothers have joined the workforce in increasing numbers and are working more, the court realizes that gender in and of itself is a poor indicator of which parent should be the primary caretaker.

Finally, child support is also addressed and is based mainly on the parenting time breakdown, the parties’ gross incomes, their health, dental, and vision insurance costs, and the amount of any other court orders for support for which they may be responsible - for example, another child support or alimony order. Those numbers are entered in a child support calculator, which produces a presumptive child support amount.

When Should I File in Court?
To establish your rights as a parent, a filing is necessary. When should you file? It depends (lawyers love saying that!). In some cases it’s best to wait to file. In some, it’s best to file immediately.

It may be best to wait on filing when the mother is cooperative and facilitating a fair arrangement between you and the child. If you’re getting what you want, filing can introduce unnecessary risk. If you begin to establish a comfortable arrangement, filing may cause the mother to become defensive and seek to defend her parenting time. If you go to court and the issue of parenting time is contested, you may end up with an order that’s less than favorable. And it may be difficult to dig yourself out of that hole.

On the other hand, if you’re not getting the arrangement you want, sitting and waiting for change - for the mother to become reasonable - may result in your setting an unfavorable precedent upon which the court may rely in establishing an initial order. In other words, when you first go to court, the judge is likely to ask what the arrangement has been. And if you’ve tolerated an unfavorable arrangement for a long time, the judge may assume that you’ve been ok with it.

The timing of the filing is so important that if you have any doubts or questions, you should reach out to a reputable family law attorney for advice and for help with planning.

Summary
Fathers have just as much of a right to a parenting relationship as mothers. The key is to know your rights, remain as involved as possible in the life of the child, and to take action in court at the appropriate time to establish and enforce your rights.

If you have any questions about establishing your rights as a father, feel free to contact us.