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  • Writer's pictureSchuyler Laverentz

What are my rights as a father if mom and I aren't married?

Updated: Aug 9, 2018

If you have a child with another person and you aren't married, in order to establish custody and visitation, you have to file a paternity case with the circuit court in the county where you live. This is especially important for fathers. A father of a child born out of wedlock has no legal rights to visitation or custody until he goes to court and those rights are granted by a judge. Also, current Missouri law allows a father to file a paternity case in the county where he lives even if the mother and child live in a different county in Missouri. If mother lives far away, that can be a big advantage for dad. Think of a paternity case like a divorce except the only issue is custody, visitation and child support - sorry, the paternity court judge cannot divide any property you may have purchased together if you weren't married at the time.

As a father, the fact your name is on the child's birth certificate gives you no right to visitation or custody. A mother can ask the state of Missouri to collect child support from you (which typically doesn't cost her anything), but she can still keep the child from you. As a father, if you receive a request from the state for child support, don't ignore the letter. There are strict time limits on responding and, if you don't respond, you may be ordered to pay a lot more support than you should have to. Call an attorney if you get such a letter.

The good news is this: If you file a paternity case in court, the judge can override the child support order from the state. In many cases, parties agree to a different amount of child support than what is calculated by the state. Also, you can receive credit for any overnights you have with the child that can significantly reduce what you pay.

My advice to fathers with children who are being denied contact because they aren't married to mom: File for paternity as soon as possible. You do not want to rely on mother's good graces for contact with your son or daughter. Commonly, mom will get mad at you at some point and deny contact, try to move far away or get a boyfriend that wants to play dad. That requires immediate legal action.

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