When an unmarried couple has a child together, both the mother and father may have legal parental rights and responsibilities.

Individuals facing parenthood who do not have a relationship with the child’s other parent should get to know their legal rights as a single parent.

The right to establish paternity

Either parent can pursue legal paternity. If the father did not sign the birth certificate in the hospital when the child is born and was not married to the mother at the time of birth, the law does not recognize him as the father.

To establish paternity after the fact, both parents must sign a legal affidavit of paternity and submit it to the family court in their jurisdiction. If one parent contests paternity, he or she may request a DNA test through family court. The court will also issue a custody and support order upon establishment of paternity.

The right to legal custody

Legal custody is the right to decide essential aspects of the child’s life such as where he or she will live as well as make choices about his or her education, health care and religion. Ideally, if parents are in communication and able to agree on these decisions, they will receive joint legal custody. Otherwise, the court will order sole legal custody based on the child’s best interests.

The right to physical custody and visitation

Parents share physical custody when each parent spends at least 35% of the time with the child and contributes to his or her support. Otherwise, the court orders sole physical custody for one parent with visitation for the other parent.

Except in situations involving abuse or neglect, the court strives to maintain the child’s relationship with both parents. In Maryland, a parent can request help from the state’s Child Support Services Administration. In Washington, D.C., parents may consult their local Child Support Services Division.