How Can I Get Visitation Rights?

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Unwed fathers may be able to get visitation rights by presenting a petition to court. This process can be complex and often requires the assistance of an experienced family law lawyer to ensure that these rights are pursued and preserved.

Filing the Petition

Before an unwed father can get legal visitation rights, he usually has to file a petition with the family court in the county where his child resides. This petition states that he is the father of the child and that he is seeking visitation or custody of the child. The petition should also state that visitation is in the child’s best interests. Custody involves having the child live with the petitioner and being able to make important decisions regarding his or her life. Visitation allows the father to spend time with the child while the mother or someone else retains custody. As a precursor to asking for visitation, establishing paternity may be necessary. Paternity can be established in a number of different ways and is based on state law. For example, signing the birth certificate or an acknowledgement of paternity in some states will establish paternity.

Service and Response

After the petition is filed, it must be served on the mother of the child. The mother has a certain amount of time to submit an answer to the petition in which she may make statements such as refuting the paternity of the child or arguing that it is not in the child’s best interests to have visitation.

Custody Considerations

When making decisions regarding children, courts consider what is in the child’s best interest. If the father can establish that he has an existing relationship with the child and the child would be adversely affected by not retaining this relationship, the father will be more likely to receive visitation.

If a father wants custody of his child, he may need to go further and establish why he is the more appropriate parent to primarily raise the child. He may need to discuss his parenting strengths with his family law lawyer who can argue these points. Some strengths may include financial stability, adequate space in the home for the child, emotional support by his family and a stable living situation. At the same time, the father may also show negative parenting traits related to the mother, such as any history of substance abuse, reports to child protection agencies, criminal history, criminal history of new boyfriends, unstable living or employment situations or other factors that weigh against giving the mother primary custody of the child.

Mutual Agreement

If both parents agree to visitation or custody, they may be able to agree to their own plan. Many states allow parents to create parenting plans that they submit to the court for legal approval. These plans may indicate when each parent will have time with the child, how summer vacations will be handled, how school breaks are to be treated and whether each parent had the first right to provide care for the child if the other parent was not available. These plans may also contain additional information regarding how the child will be raised, such as what religion the child will be brought up in, where the child will attend school and other important considerations. Some states allow the parents to present a joint petition to the court to affirm.

Final Order

Whether the parents agree to an arrangement or the court decides, once the court is involved, it will usually enter a final order in the case. This is the legal order. Even if the parents agree to some alternative arrangement, the legal order is what can be enforced. If either parent fails to abide by the terms of the final order, the other parent may be pursued for contempt of court.

Modification of an Order

Situations may change in the future that justify a modification of the order. State law determines when a child custody or visitation order may be modified. For example, the state may say that if there has been a material change of circumstance that a parent can request to modify the order. Other orders may be subject to automatic review after a certain amount of time.

Contact a Family Law Lawyer for Help

If you are interested in pursuing visitation rights, it is important to contact a family law lawyer for assistance. A family law lawyer can tell you the rules that apply in your jurisdiction and the steps necessary to exercise these rights.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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