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The Fathers' Rights Movement: Overview

The fathers' rights movement is a social movement advocating for greater rights for fathers in all areas of family law. Fathers' rights proponents argue that the legal system is biased against fathers when it comes to child support, visitation, and child custody decisions. It leaves many dads who desire to share parenting responsibility without the chance to do so.

The movement wants to see fathers have a greater opportunity to share physical and legal custody of their children. It also wants to see mothers taking greater responsibility for financial support.

The movement is not without its share of controversy. Since its beginning, the fathers' rights movement has had overlap with the men's rights movement. It has also shared in the accusations that it is misogynistic and hostile to the rights of mothers.

This article provides an overview of the fathers' rights movement in its various forms.

Formation of the Fathers' Rights Movement

The fathers' rights movement began in the United States as a result of higher rates of divorce in the 1960s and 70s. Many fathers' rights proponents began their advocacy after personal experiences in divorce or custody battles. Fathers felt they were unjustly left with little access to their children although they were responsible for alimony and child support payments.

These early advocates objected to family court judges presuming that maternal custody was in the best interests of the child. At the time, courts followed the arguably sexist principle that during a child's tender years it is best to be with its mother. That doctrine was abandoned by most states in the 80s. Now there currently is no legal preference favoring mothers and courts ostensibly weigh parents equally, without gender preference, when determining the best interests of the child. The father's rights movement contends that a pro-mother bias still exists.

In recent years, the father's rights movement has been effective in changing state laws. The National Parents Organization, a fathers' rights group, has produced a report card on state child custody legislation. The group wants to see equal shared parenting become the norm.

Concerns of the Fathers' Rights Movement

Fathers' rights supporters assert that courts too often presume that a mother should have primary custody of a child. Some say that family courts are too easily influenced by the false claims of abuse brought by mothers, an assertion that has been criticized by domestic violence researchers.

Central issues of the fathers' rights movement include the following:

Greater Parenting Time for Fathers

It used to be the case that sole custody by the mother was the norm, with visitation by the non-custodial father. Now the trend is for judges to order shared physical and legal custody. They recognize the established research that children benefit from having a consistent, stable, strong relationship with both parents.

Shared custody does not mean that each parent has equal time. The specific amount of time parents have is outlined in a separate parenting plan. One parent may only get every-other-weekend and extra time in the summer. For a parent who used to see their child every day, that often does not feel like enough time.

The current fathers' rights movement would like to see courts enact a rebuttable presumption of equal, shared parenting. This would give each parent close to the same amount of time with their children. It would allow fathers to be much more involved in their children's lives.

What is meant by "rebuttable presumption"? It means the courts will choose equal, shared parenting unless there is a reason not to do so. So if one parent can prove that the other parent is unfit for parenting or has less time to parent, then the court would consider deviating from equal time.

Parenting Time Interference

Interference with parenting time can make it difficult for fathers to maintain a relationship with their children. Parenting time interference is physically preventing visitation or restricting communication between parent and child. Parenting time interference can result in civil contempt charges if the parenting agreement is court-ordered. It can even result in criminal charges.

Fathers' rights advocates say that it can be difficult to get authorities to act on parenting time violations and that the process can be costly and time-consuming. (Mothers have made the same claim. It is challenging for family court judges to determine what has actually happened and how best to move forward in a way that does the least damage to children.)

Paternity Leave

When fathers take time to bond with a new child, the whole family benefits. Yet, many fathers get little time off when a child is born or adopted. Though the federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides guaranteed (unpaid) leave for a worker with a new child, that law only covers about half of the workforce. Furthermore, many fathers find taking unpaid leave to be impractical and fear stigma or retaliation for leaving work to spend time with a newborn.

Many in the fathers' rights movement have called for the expansion of paternity leave, paid leave, and greater protections for fathers who exercise their right to paternity leave.

Family Planning Decisions

Father's rights advocates have argued that fathers should have a greater right to participate in decisions such as abortion and adoption. An expectant father, for example, currently doesn't have a legal right to be informed of an abortion and his consent isn't required to terminate a pregnancy.

Some fathers have made the controversial argument that fathers should have the right to “financial abortion." When a pregnant woman continues a pregnancy against the father's wishes, he should be allowed to disclaim financial responsibility for the child.

Finally, fathers should have the right to adopt their child if the mother gives up custody through adoption or child welfare proceedings. Advocates believe this right should extend to unwed fathers who haven't established legal paternity.

Child Support Reform

Many fathers have called for child support reform. They argue that guidelines are arbitrary and give mothers a financial incentive to divorce and seek sole custody. Fathers have advocated for child support systems that take the incomes of both parents into account and acknowledge nonfinancial forms of support.

Many fathers' rights supporters have also noted that courts can be unsympathetic when a father falls behind in support payments. While all courts allow for the modification of a child support order, arrearages can add up. "Deadbeat dad" laws can result in fathers ending up in jail and losing their licenses. That makes it even harder to pay support.

Forty-four (44) states have enacted policies to reduce child support arrearages for parents who fail to pay. Often these are low-income fathers.

Have Your Rights Been Violated? A Fathers' Rights Attorney Can Help

Fathers seeking to protect their rights as parents don't need to go it alone. If you have questions about divorce, parenting time, or custody, contact a qualified family law attorney who can answer your questions.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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