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Mar 29, 2024

Maryland Custody Laws for Unmarried Parents: A Brief Overview

Mar 29, 2024 - Family Law by |

It is increasingly common for unmarried people to have children together. Sometimes, the parents are in a relationship, whether living together or apart. In other cases, the parents do not have a romantic or other close relationship and simply had a child together. 

When a married couple has a child, it is assumed by the state of Maryland that the husband is the child’s father. For unmarried couples, however, a father has no legal right to a relationship with their child until they establish paternity. Paternity is the legal status of a man as a child’s father. 

Fathers have significant rights in the state of Maryland, but establishing paternity is essential to being entitled to such rights. Below are the basics of what you need to know about unmarried fathers’ rights in Maryland and how to establish paternity. A Bethesda child custody lawyer can help you evaluate your particular situation.

Establishing Paternity is Essential

There are several important reasons for establishing paternity. Legal matters related to child custody, child support and visitation are all dependent on the establishment of legal paternity. 

The standard method of making a paternity determination is for the unmarried father to sign the child’s birth certificate and obtain an Affidavit of Parentage before the child turns 18, which is the age of majority in Maryland. Note that Maryland statutes do not distinguish between an adult and a minor who voluntarily signs the Affidavit of Parentage, so a father under age 18 may sign the Affidavit. Also note that you may sign an Affidavit of Parentage even if you are married to someone else. 

After you sign the Affidavit, you will be considered the legal father. Unmarried fathers may also acknowledge paternity by marrying the mother of the child and then acknowledging themselves as the child’s father. In cases where parentage is not in doubt, many unmarried couples choose to sign the Affidavit of Paternity at the hospital upon the child’s birth. After an Affidavit has been signed, it will be filed with Maryland Vital Records, and the named father will become the biological and legal father of the child.

Sometimes, a man or woman may have doubts about the child’s paternity. In this case, it’s important to seek a DNA test to determine the child’s true biological father. A DNA paternity test uses genetic material DNA, which is inherited from the mother and father, to determine paternity. The DNA material is most frequently taken with a cheek swab, although, in some cases, it is obtained through blood. The DNA is run through a sequencing process that looks for genetic matches between the potential father and child, and it is considered to be 99.9% accurate.  

Another possible complication is when the mother was married at the time of her child’s birth, but another man claims to be (and is acknowledged by the mother to be) the biological father. In such cases, the husband at the time of birth is considered to be the father, and the court will not accept evidence to the contrary unless it finds it is in the child’s best interest to do so. However, where the three adult parties are in agreement, the court will, in most cases, be more willing to enter an order naming the third party as the father.

Custody Matters

For unmarried fathers who have established paternity, Maryland’s child custody laws are the same as they are for married parents. The state does not give preference to the mother in determining who should be the custodial parent. 

Maryland recognizes two types of custody:

  • Legal custody pertains to decision-making authority regarding the child’s upbringing, including education, healthcare, and religious matters. Courts may grant joint legal custody to both parents or sole legal custody to one parent if it is deemed in the child’s best interest.
  • Physical custody involves where the child resides. Maryland courts may grant joint physical custody, allowing the child to spend significant time with both parents or sole physical custody to one parent with visitation rights for the other.

When determining custody, the court considers the child’s best interests by weighing such factors as the parents’ respective financial situations, their ability to provide a stable home environment, the child’s relationship with each parent, and the child’s preferences (if the child is of sufficient age and maturity, which is typically considered to be age 16 in Maryland). If either parent has a history of child abuse, neglect, or substance abuse, this will likely be considered by the court in weighing the best interests of the child.  

Either parent can petition the court to modify custody or visitation orders if there is a significant change in circumstances. Courts will consider the child’s best interests when evaluating modification requests. Maryland encourages parents to resolve custody disputes through mediation or alternative dispute resolution before resorting to litigation.

Visitation Rights

As Maryland courts want to ensure that the child maintains a meaningful relationship with both parents, visitation rights are typically given to the noncustodial parent unless it’s not in the child’s best interest. Visitation schedules can be agreed upon by the parents or ordered by the court if an agreement cannot be reached. 

Note that Maryland also recognizes the importance of grandparent relationships and now allows grandparents to petition for visitation rights in certain circumstances, such as when the child’s parents are divorced, the parents have annulled their marriage, or if one or both of the child’s parents are deceased.

Child Support 

Unmarried parents are responsible for financially supporting their children. The Maryland Child Support Guidelines help determine the amount of child support based on the parents’ incomes and other relevant factors. Child support orders can be established by the court, and failure to comply with those orders may result in legal consequences.

Contact a Bethesda Child Custody Lawyer 

An initial consultation with a Bethesda child custody lawyer will help you understand your paternal and parental rights. Contact Brandon Bernstein at 240-395-1418, or TELL US HOW WE CAN REACH YOU ONLINE today.