Family structures have changed. Unmarried parents are far from outliers. According to data from the Pew Research Center, there are 16.6 million unmarried parents nationwide, meaning about one-third of all American children live with an unmarried parent.
You may be wondering: Are Maryland’s child custody laws different for unmarried parents? For the most part, the answer is ‘no’ — with the exception that unmarried fathers must take action to establish paternity. Here, our child custody attorney in Rockville provides an overview of the custody laws for unmarried parents in Maryland.
The General Standard: Custody Laws are Similar for Unmarried Parents
As a starting point, it is important to clarify that Maryland’s child custody laws are broadly similar for parents who are getting divorced and parents who were never married in the first place. Your marital status should not undermine your ability to assert your parental rights.
In Maryland, courts prefer some form of shared legal custody. Though, sole custody can be awarded when deemed appropriate. There may or may not be joint physical custody of the child, depending on the specific circumstances of the case.
Any custody or visitation dispute is resolved by applying Maryland’s ‘best interests of the child’ legal standard. Maryland family law judges are required to make custody & visitation determinations based on what is best for the child’s health, safety, well-being, and social development.
The Key Difference: An Unmarried Father Must Establish Paternity
As noted above, there is a key difference between a custody case involving divorcing and a custody case involving never-married parents: The father must establish legal paternity. In Maryland, there are multiple ways to establish paternity. The first (and most straightforward) is marriage. A married man is automatically assumed to be the legal father of his wife’s child. No action is required to prove paternity. If the parents file for divorce, the father has the right to seek custody.
For unmarried men, paternity is not automatic. An unwed couple must take action to establish legal paternity. To be clear, proving paternity is not difficult if both parents agree. In Maryland, an unmarried mother and father have the right to submit a legal form called an Affidavit of Parentage to the state’s Department of Human Service. When submitting jointly, this form is sufficient to establish legal paternity. If there is a conflict over paternity, the case can get a little more complicated. Genetic testing may even be required.
The Bottom Line: Custody laws for married and unmarried couples are similar. However, a custody case for an unmarried father cannot begin until he has established legal paternity for the child.
Call Our Rockville, MD Child Custody Lawyer for Immediate Help
At The Law Offices of Sandra Guzman-Salvado, our Maryland family lawyer is a skilled, solutions-focused advocate for parents. If you have any questions about the custody laws for unmarried parents, we are here to help. Contact our law firm today for a confidential initial consultation. With office locations in Rockville, Bethesda, Greenbelt, and Frederick, we represent parents in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Frederick County, and beyond.