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When parents aren't married, who gets custody?

Most child custody and visitation disagreements appear during proceedings, when two married parents are trying to organize what their parental responsibilities will look like following the dissolution of their marriage. However, child custody disputes are not only associated with divorce.

Numerous children are born to unwed parents, who -- at some point during the pregnancy or after -- decided to go their separate ways. Since these individuals were never married the child custody matter will be handled in its own separate proceeding.

The child custody process for unmarried parents

In most situations, when the parents are not married, the mother will receive sole physical custody of the child automatically. However, if the father takes intentional action, then he can be awarded custody as well. Although it is difficult for an unwed father to take sole custody rights away from the mother, he can establish the ability to receive some kind of custody in addition to visitation rights regarding the child.

When two parents are embroiled in a custody dispute, but were never married, the courts will usually handle it the same as a custody dispute involving divorcing parents. The visitation and child custody decisions will either be arrived at through a settlement agreement or by a family law court. The only difference is that the entire legal proceeding will be focused on the child custody issue rather than also focusing on other issues like asset division, alimony, and other decisions. As such, the process is less involved and much simpler.

What is the family law court's most important concern?

Family law courts in California will always have primary consideration of identifying the "primary caretaker" of the child. In selecting that caretaker, they will usually take the default position of selecting the mother, while giving the father the right to visit his or her child and some decision-making authority over the child's rearing. However, if it is in the best interest of the child to be cared for by the father, then the court may give this responsibility to the father.

California parents who were never married but need to assert their parental rights in court with regard to their children may want to discuss their situations with a local family law attorney. An attorney can help them seek the fairest and most favorable outcome for themselves, their children and their families.

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