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Tips for Unmarried Parents who Want to Raise Children Together

Ensuring both unmarried parents' names are on the birth certificate

Naming both unmarried parents on the birth certificate ensures that they are both the legal parents. This will give each parent legal rights and responsibilities such as custody rights, visitation rights, and child support. Any child born to a married couple is legally presumed to be the child of the husband. However, when the parents are unmarried, there is no such presumption. Therefore, most states require unmarried fathers to sign an affidavit acknowledging their paternity. It is best that both parents sign and notarize a written statement that acknowledges the unmarried father's paternity.

Your state's Bureau of Vital Statistics keeps records of all birth certificates. Check with your own state's bureau to make sure that your paternity affidavit is on file. This bureau is also where to turn if you want to add a parent to your child's birth certificate. Find your state's contact information by visiting the National Center for Health Statistics.

Choosing a last name of your liking

Most states allow any name to be placed on a child's birth certificate. This includes first, middle, and last names. The child does not have to take either of the parents' names, but can take one or the other, or the two names can be hyphenated, as the parents see fit. Some parents even give one parent's last name as the child's middle name, and the other parent's last name as the child's last name. If you need a little more time deciding, you can decide first and amend your child's birth certificate later through your state's Bureau of Vital Statistics.

Example: Pat Davis and Sam Smith are unmarried parents who live in California. They have a child together and decide to name him Mark Smith Davis. The next year, they have another child and name her Rabbit Flower Davis-Smith. A couple months later, they decide that they want Rabbit and Mark to have the same last name. So, they go to the California Bureau of Vital Statistics and change Rabbit's birth certificate to name her Rabbit Flower Smith. This does not change Pat or Sam's parental status whatsoever, as they are both named as parents on the birth certificate.

Qualifying your child for government benefits

As long as your name is included on the child's birth certificate, your biological and legal children are eligible for government benefits, like Social Security survivorship benefits, government pension, etc. If your name is not included on the birth certificate, your child might still be eligible for benefits, but he or she will face the hassles of proving paternity. The key is proving paternity to the government agency, which is made simple through the birth certificate and/or paternity affidavit at the time of, or shortly after, your child's birth.

Unmarried parents adopting a child

Most states allow unmarried parents to adopt children; however, this does not keep adoption agencies and social services from discriminating against unmarried couples. If you and your partner are not married, you may have to do more work to prove to social services and government agencies that your home is stable enough to raise children. You may want to consult a family law attorney to help you through the legalities and provide you with some guidance.

When an unmarried couple adopts a child jointly, they are both the child's legal parents. Each legal parent has equal rights and responsibilities to the child. This is true even if the unmarried parents separate, in which case each parent has a right to ask the family court for custody, visitation, and child support from the other parent.

Adopting your partner's child, when you're not one of the biological parents

When someone who is not a biological parent adopts his or her partner's child, this is called a "second-parent adoption." These are most common in stepparent-stepchild scenarios. Some states also grant second-parent adoptions when a same-sex partner adopts his or her partner's child--a common way for same-sex couples to raise families.

Second-parent adoptions, where the adopting parent is married to one of the biological parents, are commonly approved. The courts favor situations where the adopting couple is legally married and the child will continue living with the couple. Courts view such adoptions as improving the structure of the family, and thus, favor second-parent adoptions.

Second-parent adoptions by unmarried couples are less favored. If you and your partner are unmarried, and one of you wishes to adopt the other's child, consult a family lawyer for guidance.

Unless parents have been deemed "unfit" by some legal process or have abandoned their child, they have a right to parent their own child. Because of this, second-parent adoptions cannot be granted unless one of the following applies:

  • Both of the child's legal parents consent
  • The noncustodial parent is deceased
  • The noncustodial parent has been deemed "unfit" by a court
  • The noncustodial parent has abandoned the child

Social services will determine whether a parent has abandoned the child or is unfit. If the noncustodial parent has paid support, maintained a relationship with the child, and in the case of the father, has signed a paternity affidavit, that parent must give consent before a second-parent adoption can be approved.

Once a second-parent adoption is successful, the adoptive parent has the same rights and duties as a biological parent. This means that if the couple ever separates, the adoptive parent has custody and visitation rights and a duty to support the child.

Both unmarried parents claiming their child on their tax forms

Only one parent can claim the children as dependents on their taxes if the parents are unmarried. Either unmarried parent is entitled to the exemption, so long as he or she supports the child. Typically, the best way to decide which parent should claim the child is to determine which parent has the higher income. The parent with the higher income will receive a bigger tax break. The parents can agree to split the tax return, even though only one parent is receiving it.

A non-parent playing a live-in parental role

Many times issues arise when a nonparent who is living with the child and acts as that child's parent regarding educational and medical decisions. The legality of this nonparent's authority to do this depends on several factors.

  • If the other legal parent is in the picture and shares joint legal custody, then he or she probably has priority to make medical decisions over the nonparent. This, of course, does not preclude the nonparent from being listed as the emergency contact person on important records, in case a legal parent is unavailable.
  • Since schools are legally liable for the safety and care of the children, they can only accept signatures and permission slips from the children's legal guardians. An unmarried partner of a legal parent probably does not qualify as a legal guardian.
  • Nonparents may be permitted to pick up children from school if a legal parent informs the school.

Contact your child's school and other authorities to find out what procedures are necessary to give nonparents their decision-making rights.

The break-up of unmarried parents affecting parental rights and duties

If both parents are legal parents, biologically or through adoption, they each have an equal right to pursue custody. Neither parent can deprive the other of this right. Once one of the parents is granted custody, he or she cannot deprive the other of his or her visitation rights. If a parent fails to fulfill his or her parental duties, the court can terminate that parent's right to be considered a legal parent. The noncustodial parent must continue to be involved in the child's life through visitation and child support.

If an unmarried partner is not a legal parent of the child, he or she probably has no rights to even visit the child. However, unmarried partners can enter into a written agreement if they both want to a part of the child's life. This agreement should include visitation and support. If an agreement can't be made and the nonparent wants to pursue rights in court, the outcome will be based on state law. A best interest of the child standard is typically used, and thus, some states do grant visitation or custody to nonparents. However, many states, even though they may follow the best interest of the child standard, still favor the parents over nonparents. Check your own state's laws and consult an experienced family law attorney for answers and guidance to your situation.

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