When unmarried parents separate, they face the difficult task of determining custody and visitation arrangements for their children. Unlike divorced parents, unmarried parents generally do not have an existing legal framework to help guide these decisions. However, there are steps unmarried couples can take to establish custody rights and create an agreement in the best interests of the children.
Determining Custody for Unmarried Parents
There are two types of child custody – legal custody and physical custody.
Legal custody refers to the right to make important decisions about the child’s welfare, such as medical care, education, and religious upbringing. If unmarried parents share joint legal custody, they share the responsibility for making these major decisions. Sole legal custody means only one parent has the right to make such determinations.
Physical custody establishes where the child lives and which parent is responsible for day-to-day care. If parents share joint physical custody, the child lives with each parent for equal amounts of time. With sole physical custody, the child resides primarily with one parent who cares for him/her on a daily basis.
In determining custody arrangements, courts look at factors like:
- The child’s established living situation
- Parental fitness and ability to care for the child
- The child’s needs and relationship with each parent
- Parent willingness to facilitate a relationship between the child and other parent
Establishing Visitation Rights
Along with custody, unmarried parents need to determine visitation schedules – when the child will spend time with each parent. Courts encourage frequent contact with both parents. Typical visitation arrangements include:
- Weekends – The child spends weekends with one parent.
- Weeknights – One parent sees the child on a set weekday overnight.
- Split weeks – Each parent has the child for part of the week.
- Alternating weeks – The child switches homes weekly.
Holidays, school breaks, and summers also need to be divided between parents. Be flexible and willing to compromise when creating a visitation schedule.
Creating a Parenting Plan
The best way for unmarried parents to establish custody rights is by creating a written parenting plan. Parenting plans typically outline:
- Legal and physical custody arrangements
- A visitation schedule
- Holiday and vacation plans
- Transportation details – dropping off/picking up the child
- Decision-making process – determining medical care, education, etc.
- How to handle future disputes
Consult a family law attorney when drafting a custody and visitation agreement to ensure it follows state laws. Then have it approved by a judge and entered into the court record. This gives the parenting plan legal enforceability if disputes arise later.
With patience and willingness to compromise in the child’s best interest, unmarried couples can create an effective co-parenting plan. Put aside personal conflicts and focus on giving the child stability through this transition.