In Virginia, unmarried parents have the same rights and responsibilities to their children as married couples do. However, parents who were never married may face some additional steps when they establish child custody after a breakup.
Paternity frequently complicates the process of determining custody in cases where the parents were never married. If either party denies the paternity of the father, paternity will be addressed in court. It should be noted that unmarried fathers who initially contest their paternity may have difficulty obtaining custody or visitation later on.
Fathers who are not married may need to establish their paternity and associated rights through a court-ordered DNA test and/or a paternity action. In Virginia, the first step to establishing paternity rights is filing a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity form (if the parents agree on the biological identity of the child’s father) or a Petition to Establish Paternity (if they do not) .
Once the initial steps of establishing paternity are completed, the determination of child custody and support is very similar for never-married parents and for parents going through a divorce. The primary purpose of custody and support laws is to ensure that the child receives financial support and physical care.
Unmarried couples usually decide on child custody issues outside of court, because the lack of divorce means that it is not necessary for the courts to get involved. Unmarried couples can work with a mediator, a family law counselor or an attorney to make a parenting agreement that outlines child support, custody and visitation.
If you are seeking to establish paternity and/or child custody following a breakup, hiring a skilled attorney is the first step, especially if you anticipate conflict with the other parent.