The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization focused on the U.S. criminal justice system recently published an article highlighting the plight of an unwed father who lost his daughter to the N.Y. state foster care system. Both parents lived with the child, but they were not married, and the father had not legally established paternity. The child was taken away based on allegations that the mother had abused the child. The father insists he never abused the child and was not present when the mother’s abuse occurred, but placement with the father was never considered. While in foster care, the father did not know that he was expected to provide financial support to the state in order to preserve his rights, and the state did not have any program for billing or collecting child support from the father while the child was in foster care.  Based on his lack of financial support, a court order ended his parental rights, paving the way for the child to be adopted by another family. The case is now on appeal.  

Abuse or Neglect with Unwed Parents

More details on this story can be found here and in the New York Times article. In New York and 11 other states, if a mother is accused of abuse or neglect but the father is not, and he is not married to her, he must prove that he is a parent and providing support, or he will not have input in whether the child is put up for adoption. In most of those states, including New York, proof means paying child support — not to the mother but to the government agency that has taken the child.

In a study published about a year ago by the Pew Research Center, it is well established that in recent years there has been a huge increase in the number of unmarried parents that are cohabitating.  The study shows that due primarily to the rising number of cohabiting parents, the share of unmarried parents who are fathers has more than doubled over the past 50 years. Now, 29% of all unmarried parents who reside with their children are fathers, compared with just 12% in 1968.  From 1968 to 2017, the number of unmarried parents who were solo mothers declined from 88% to 53%. These declines in solo mothers have been entirely offset by increases in cohabitating parents: Now 35% of all unmarried parents are living with a partner. 

Legal Rights as a Father May Be Jeopardized 

The Marshall Project story and these statistics should send a clear warning to all unmarried fathers that without marriage, your legal rights as a father may be jeopardized if you do nothing to legally establish your paternity.  In Washington State, paternity can be established by signing an Acknowledgement of Paternity or through a court-ordered paternity DNA test. He may also designate himself as the father by adopting the child or if he lived with the child for the first two years of its life and presented the child to the world as his own.  When it comes to a custody battle, fathers may have more difficulty securing custody rights if they must first prove paternity. Without legally establishing paternity that unacknowledged child’s rights to an inheritance from the father may also be in jeopardy.  Tax consequences can also present legal issues for cohabiting unmarried parents. 

Our Seattle Family Law Attorneys Are Here to Help

The Washington family law lawyers at Molly B. Kenny, LLC are available to help unmarried parents take the necessary steps to establish paternity. Contact the lawyers at Molly B. Kenny, LLC to review your specific circumstances and assist in taking the right steps to avoid legal jeopardy in the future. 

Molly B. Kenny
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Divorce and Child Custody Attorney Serving Bellevue and Seattle Washington
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