An Overview on Father's Rights Law

Your paternal rights and how to enforce them

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on March 2, 2023

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It is important for fathers and their children to have a relationship, and that can sometimes be complicated by the father’s relationship with the children’s other parent. If you are a father going through a divorce, you may be wondering what rights you have to your children. If you are an unmarried father, you might be wondering if you have rights during an adoption or rights to visitation.

The following overview looks at a few of your basic rights and the beginning steps you may need to take to enforce them. This overview is not exhaustive, and family law matters can vary widely by jurisdiction, so you may find it necessary to speak with a lawyer. This overview can give you a starting point so you know how a lawyer can help you.


Father’s rights can include the right to take time off work when a child is born or adopted, the right to parenting time, and the right to be notified of potential adoption. Fathers also may have the right to be involved in their children’s lives, petition the court for child custody or visitation, and the right to receive child support for custodial children.

Establishing Paternity

To assert your rights, you will usually be required to establish paternity or that you are the biological father. If you were married to the children’s mother when the children were born, then it is assumed you are the father and you likely do not need to take any further steps to establish paternity. However, if you were not married at the time the children were born, you may have to take some steps before you can assert your rights.

Paternity can be established voluntarily. This can be done at the child’s birth by signing the birth certificate or later by signing a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity and filing it with the necessary state agency. Voluntary acknowledgment can also happen as part of a settlement agreement designed to resolve custody and support issues. 

If you cannot establish paternity voluntarily, you may want to consider filing a paternity lawsuit. Depending on your jurisdiction, DNA tests can sometimes be used to establish that you are the child’s father. If you are successful in court, you will receive a court order establishing paternity and you will be entitled to visitation and parenting time with your children. You should be aware that success might also require you to begin paying child support if you are not made the custodial parent.

Protecting Your Rights

As a father, you have some basic rights. For example, you have the right to

  • Be consulted before your minor child is placed for adoption
  • Petition for custody rights
  • Receive child support if you are granted a custody order
  • Get visitation rights with your children if there is a negative custody decision

In some situations, the other parent is cooperative, and you won’t need to get a family court to help you enforce them. In other circumstances, you may need to petition a court. Procedures will vary by court and jurisdiction, and they can also vary depending on whether you have a pre-existing order from a divorce proceeding or you were never married to the child’s other parent.

If you already have an order regarding custody and visitation or child support, you will likely file a petition to modify the order if you would like it changed or enforced if it is not being followed. If you do not have an order, you may consider asking the court to create or enforce a proposed parenting plan. You can also petition for custody and receive child support if it’s granted.

Common Questions for an Attorney

Below are some common questions you might want to consider when pursuing a paternity action or getting legal advice from a father’s rights attorney:

  1. What are your attorney’s fees and billing options?
  2. What legal rights does an unmarried father have?
  3. Do I have equal rights in a custody arrangement? What decision-making role do I have in my child’s life?
  4. How are the best interests of the child established?
  5. How long does the father have to establish paternity?
  6. What are father’s rights when mother wants to move?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is important to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory, and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.

To help you get started, you may want to consider looking for a family law attorney with experience with father’s rights

Why Should I Talk to a Lawyer?

A lawyer will be helpful whether you are an unwed father or a father going through a divorce or custody dispute. Your lawyer can represent you in your divorce proceedings or as you work to establish paternity. They will also help you file relevant petitions to enforce and modify orders, and your lawyer can help you conduct settlement negotiations. 

A lawyer will be able to anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them. They can gather documents and help you interview potential witnesses to support your case. Your lawyer will also keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary courts and agencies, giving you one less thing to worry about.

What do I do next?

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