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What rights do unmarried fathers have?

As an unmarried father, you still want to play an important part in the upbringing of your children, should the relationship with the other parent break down. However, there are some legal rights that you need to be aware of in order to ensure that both your role as a parent and the welfare of your child are protected. In this article, we will discuss the rights that unmarried fathers have and how you can exercise them.

Misconceptions about unmarried fathers' rights

Automatic parental responsibility

One common misconception is that unmarried fathers automatically have fewer legal rights compared to married fathers; this is not necessarily the case.

In the UK, an unmarried father can gain parental responsibility if he is registered on the child's birth certificate (after a certain date), marries the mother, enters into a parental responsibility agreement with the mother, or obtains a court order for parental responsibility (expanded on below). 

Guaranteed access to children

Another misunderstanding is that an unmarried father's access to their child is automatically granted, but in reality, it may require legal action if the mother is uncooperative. The right to access needs to be established through a child arrangement order if unmarried parents cannot agree on the arrangements.

Role of the courts

There's a misconception that courts are biased against fathers and favour the mother automatically. However, the court's primary concern is the welfare of the child, and they will consider a number of factors when deciding which parent the child should live with.

Unmarried father's parental responsibility

Under UK law, 'Parental Responsibility' means all the legal rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority that a parent has for a child and the child's property. It is the legal recognition that enables a parent to make important decisions regarding a child's upbringing, such as educational choices, religious practice, medical treatment, and where the child should live.

It is paramount that the welfare of the child takes precedence in any decision making.

How to obtain parental responsibility as an unmarried father

For an unmarried father to acquire parental responsibility for his child, he can:

  • Jointly register the birth: Being named on the birth certificate at the time of registration (after 1 December 2003) automatically grants him Parental Responsibility.

  • Parental Responsibility Agreement: Enter into a formal written agreement with the mother if she is willing and has Parental Responsibility herself.

  • Parental Responsibility Order: Apply to the family court for an order, which can be made if the court agrees it's in the best interest of the child.

  • Child Arrangement Order: As part of this order, which determines where a child lives and when a child spends time with each parent, the court may also grant Parental Responsibility.

  • Paternity Declaration: Establish paternity through a DNA test if necessary, and follow the court processes to be granted Parental Responsibility, especially if the mother contests the father's role.

It's crucial that unmarried fathers who wish to play an active role in their child's life take the necessary legal steps to secure their Parental Responsibility. This legal standing serves not only as a tool for ensuring their participation in key decisions but also as a foundation for nurturing their parent-child relationship.

Equal rights with parental responsibility

Once an unmarried father gains parental responsibility, his rights and responsibilities towards his child are indeed equal to those of a married father. This includes the right to be involved in important decisions about the child's life.

Access Rights

When it comes to contact , which is often referred to as 'living arrangements' in UK law, unmarried fathers can find themselves navigating a complex legal landscape.

Contact refers to the time a father gets to spend with his child, and these can be formally agreed upon with the mother, or in some cases, need to be determined through court proceedings.

If contact is contested, both parents have the right to seek a 'Child Arrangement Order' from the court, which stipulates where the child will live ('residence') and when and how they will have contact with the non-resident parent.

For unmarried fathers without automatic parental responsibility, getting such an order may also grant them parental responsibility alongside the mother.

The court's primary concern is the welfare and best interests of the child, with the aim to minimise disruption and safeguard the child's emotional wellbeing. The court encourages parents to come to an amicable agreement.

Determining child contact

In determining contact for a child, UK courts are guided by the overarching principle that the child's welfare is of paramount importance.

This principle is enshrined in the Children Act 1989, which sets out what is known as the 'welfare checklist'.

Courts take into account several factors from this checklist, including

  • The child's physical, emotional, and educational needs

  • Likely effect on the child of any change in circumstances

  • The child's age, sex, background, and any characteristics which the court considers relevant

  • Any harm the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering

  • How capable each of the parents is of meeting the child's needs.

The court also considers the child's own wishes and feelings in light of their age and understanding.

The aim is to ensure that any decision revolves around the benefits to the child, rather than the rights of the parents. In situations where parental responsibility is contested, the court will weigh each parent's involvement in the child's life and their ability to provide a stable and supportive environment.

The 'no order principle' also applies, which means that a court order will not be made unless it would be better for the child than making no order at all. This ensures that legal intervention is only used when absolutely necessary for the child's welfare.

Types of lives with arrangements

When the courts are making decisions about the upbringing of a child, various types of contact and/or lives with orders can be considered. These arrangements are tailored to suit the best interests of the child while also addressing the abilities of the parents to provide adequate care and support.

  • Joint lives with order: Joint lives with order allows both parents to share legal and physical responsibility for the child. This means that the child spends substantial time with both parents, and both have a say in important decisions regarding the child's welfare.

  • Sole lives with order: Sole lives with order grants one parent the primary legal and physical responsibility for the child. The non-resident parent may have regular contact, but does not have equal say in decision-making processes.

A child arrangements order will help to  determine the type of lives with arrangement that is in the best interests of the child, taking into consideration all relevant factors.

In some cases, a combination of these arrangements may be used to suit the individual needs of the child and family.

Financial responsibilities of an unmarried Father

An unmarried father has a legal obligation to financially support his child, regardless of whether he has parental responsibility or a formal relationship with the child's mother. This duty ensures that the child receives sufficient support to cover their everyday living costs, as well as their broader developmental needs.

Child Maintenance

Child maintenance is a regular, legally-enforced financial contribution from the non-resident parent towards the child’s upbringing. In the UK, child maintenance is typically calculated using a standard formula by the Child Maintenance Service (CMS). Factors influencing the maintenance calculations include:

  • The paying parent's income level.

  • The number of children they are supporting.

  • The amount of time the child spends with the paying parent.

The CMS can enforce payments if the paying parent fails to pay child maintenance voluntarily. These financial responsibilities underscore the commitment of an unmarried father to the welfare and stability of their child's future.

Consequences of non-payment of child maintenance

Non-payment of child maintenance in the UK can result in serious repercussions enforced by the Child Maintenance Service (CMS). These may include wage deductions, bank account deductions, legal action, negative impact on credit rating, and even forced property sale or transfer. Such enforcement actions not only have legal consequences for the non-compliant parent but can also negatively affect the child's quality of life and emotional well-being.

Challenging situations: what if the mother objects?

There can be several scenarios where the mother may object to the father's involvement in their child's life.

The mother’s concerns might be rooted in past instances of the father's behaviour that she perceives as harmful or neglectful towards the child or herself.

Disagreements can also arise from differing parenting philosophies, lifestyles, or the father's irregular engagement with the child. In more severe cases, allegations of abuse, substance misuse, or other conduct that may endanger the child's well-being could be factors for objection.

It is essential for any objections to be addressed within a legal framework, as the courts possess the tools and authority to assess whether these concerns are grounded in facts that may impact the child's safety and welfare. The court considers evidence presented by both parents and may seek reports from social services or child psychologists to make an informed decision, ensuring the child's best interests remain central to any ruling on child arrangements.

Understand your rights as an unmarried father. Speak to our family team by contacting us here.

Useful Links

How to split up when you have a child

Financial rights of unmarried mothers

How does a break up affect a child?

What happens to the children if a parent dies?

The contents of this article do not constitute legal advice and are provided for general information purposes only. The contents are copyright of Lee Bolton Monier-Williams LLP. All rights reserved.