When parents divorce, the custody of the children often becomes the central issue of the divorce proceeding. But when a child’s parents have never married one another, how is a custody dispute handled?

And what are the rights of unmarried parents in a child custody dispute in Indiana?

You are about to learn those answers. You’ll also learn where parents in Indiana – whether they are married or unmarried – can obtain the legal help they need in a child custody battle.

Unmarried parents share most of the legal custody rights and obligations that other parents have, but Indiana courts handle custody cases that involve unmarried parents in a slightly different way.

WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT TO ESTABLISH A CHILD’S PATERNITY?

In this state, when unmarried parents have a child together, establishing paternity is imperative –for legal and medical reasons and for building a healthy father-child relationship in the years ahead.

It cannot be stressed strongly enough how important it is to establish legal paternity for your child. Legal paternity gives a child the rights to:

1. financial support from both parents
2. the medical records of both parents
3. Social Security and veterans’ benefits
4. life and health insurance benefits

Perhaps more importantly, establishing paternity gives your child the emotional and psychological security of knowing who both parents are.

HOW IS PATERNITY ESTABLISHED IN INDIANA?

In the state of Indiana, a man is presumed to be a child’s legal father if he and the mother are married when their child is born, or if the child is born within three hundred days of a final divorce decree.

In all other circumstances, legal paternity in Indiana is established either by a paternity affidavit or by a court order.

In Indiana, a biological father should sign a Voluntary Declaration of Paternity in the first 72 hours after the child’s birth. When the father and mother both sign the Voluntary Declaration of Paternity – hospitals provide the form – the father will be legally recognized as the child’s father.

When a Voluntary Declaration of Paternity is signed at the hospital at the time of birth, state law requires the parents to be physically separated and to sign the document separately – to reduce any possibility of undue influence.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN PATERNITY IS ESTABLISHED?

By legally establishing paternity when the child is born, an unmarried father assumes both responsibilities and rights regarding child custody and child support.

Unmarried parents in Indiana should understand that signing a paternity affidavit is always voluntary.

A man has the right to withdraw/rescind his acknowledgment of paternity in Indiana only within sixty days of the date that the paternity affidavit is completed.

Unmarried fathers should understand that beginning sixty days after you sign a paternity affidavit, it probably can never be reversed or “undone.”

If you are – or if you’re about to become – an unmarried parent in Indiana, before you sign a Voluntary Declaration of Paternity, have your questions and concerns about your parental rights and responsibilities answered by an experienced Lake County family law attorney.

You’ll get the sound legal advice, guidance, and insights that an unmarried parent in this state is very much going to need.

CAN PATERNITY BE ESTABLISHED AT A LATER TIME?

Paternity can be established at a later time if it is not established at the time of a child’s birth. A good family attorney can initiate a paternity action on an unmarried father’s behalf.

In most of these cases, paternity can be legally established if the parents agree to acknowledge the father’s paternity and submit a jointly-signed declaration of paternity to the court.

When an Indiana court accepts that declaration and legal fatherhood is established, the court may then issue appropriate custody, visitation, and child support orders if necessary.

In disputed paternity cases, a court may order genetic testing before it issues a custody order. Genetic testing must be conducted by an accredited laboratory.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN UNMARRIED PARENTS HAVE A CUSTODY BATTLE?

In the 21st century, young adults are increasingly avoiding or delaying marriage and choosing cohabitation instead. But what happens if – after years of cohabiting and co-parenting – unmarried parents decide to go their separate ways and a child custody battle ensues?

A skilled family lawyer can help an unmarried parent decide if legal action is needed to protect that parent’s custody rights.

Whether married or unmarried, a parent with legal custody has the authority to make the major decisions about a child’s environment and upbringing – decisions about the child’s education, healthcare, and social and extracurricular activities.

If a child’s custody is in dispute, and if the parents cannot reach their own voluntary agreement, mediation is usually the first step in resolving the dispute. If a child custody mediation fails, the case goes to court, and after a custody hearing, an Indiana judge will issue a custody order.

WHAT FACTORS ARE CONSIDERED IN A CUSTODY HEARING?

In Indiana’s state courts, the best interests of the child will be the leading consideration in a child custody case. To make what it believes is the best custody determination, the court will seek the answers to these questions:

1. Who is the child’s primary caregiver?
2. What is the financial situation of the parents?
3. Does either parent have a criminal history?
4. Is there evidence of alcohol, drug, or domestic abuse?

If a child is mature enough, the court may also take into account the child’s preference in a custody dispute, but once again, a court will base its final custody determination on what it believes to be the best interests of the child.

IS CHILD SUPPORT AVAILABLE TO UNMARRIED PARENTS?

An unmarried parent with the sole legal custody of a child may seek child support. Child support orders and amounts in this state are based exclusively on the parents’ incomes and the children’s needs – and not on the parents’ marital status.

A family law attorney can help unmarried parents in Indiana with paternity actions, child custody disputes, child support requests, and any other matter of family law. Parenthood is a trying and difficult job, and parents need all of the help they can get.

If you need advice and/or representation regarding any matter of family law in Indiana, and especially if you are an unmarried parent in a child custody dispute, get the legal help you need as early as possible – because nothing is more important than your child.