What are my parental rights as an unmarried parent?

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If you are an unmarried parent then you may be left confused and maybe even concerned about the parental rights you have over your children, either following a breakdown of your relationship with the other parent or because you are cohabiting with the other parent.

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The law on parental rights for unmarried parents can seem confusing and even unfair. However, this guide hopes to shed some light on the rights and responsibilities you have, and provide some advice on how to get parental responsibility if you don’t already have it.

What is ‘parental responsibility’?


As parents you can have legal ‘parental responsibility’ which confers on you a responsibility and a right to look after and make important decisions for your child.

Having ‘parental responsibility’ means you have broad duties to:
  • Provide a home for your child
  • Protect and maintain your child

It also means you can make important decisions regarding your child, such as:
  • Choosing and providing your child's education
  • Making decisions about your child’s medical treatment
  • Naming your child and agreeing to any change of name
  • Looking after your child’s property

If you do not have ‘parental responsibility’ then legally, you have no right to make decisions about these important aspects of your child’s life.

So who has parental responsibility?


As a mother you automatically have parental responsibility for your child from birth, regardless of whether you are married to the child's father or not.

If you are married to the mother of your child, then you both have automatic parental responsibility upon the birth of your child. This also applies to parents in a civil partnership.

If you are an unmarried father or second parent, then you do not have automatic parental responsibility.

So as an unmarried father or second parent, you need to acquire parental responsibility.

How do I get legal parental responsibility as an unmarried parent?


There are three ways to get parental responsibility for your child as a father or as a second parent:
  • You can jointly register your name with the mother on the birth certificate. This only confers automatic parental responsibility if done after 1st December 2003
  • You can ask the mother of your child for a parental responsibility agreement, where she agrees to confer parental responsibility on you
  • Apply to court for a parental responsibility order

How do I apply for a parental responsibility order?


If the mother refuses to grant you a parental responsibility agreement then your final choice is to take the issue to a family court. The court can then decide whether or not to confer parental responsibility on you as a father, second parent or even a relative. More than two people can be granted parental responsibility for a child.

However, going to court does not guarantee that you will be granted parental responsibility for your child.

The court under s1 of the Children Act 1989 will consider the welfare of the child in making the decision. All decisions made about that child have to be in their best interests. Because of this overriding principle, the court generally encourages fathers and second parents to keep in contact with their children, unless there is a reason not to.

My relationship with the other parent has ended - will I keep parental responsibility?


If you already have legal parental responsibility then ending a relationship with the other parent will not affect your parental responsibility.

Both or all parents with responsibility will continue to have parental responsibility and will have to agree on important decisions regarding your child. If a decision cannot be reached, then you will both need to go to court to settle the decision in the best interests of your child.

What financial responsibilities do I have towards my child?


If after going to court or speaking with the mother of your child they do not grant you parental responsibility, then you still have financial responsibilities towards your child. The law makes no distinction between whether a father has parental responsibility or not when assessing the financial contributions they need to make towards a child.

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