The protection that an unmarried parent in D.C. receives concerning child custody and other family law matters mirrors the protection that a married parent gets, but with a few differences. For instance, visitation and custody matters can be addressed as part of the divorce proceedings for a married couple, but this isn't true for unmarried parents who have separate proceedings for these issues.
Protection for Unmarried Parents in D.C. at a Glance
Although it's a good idea to consult with an attorney for complex legal matters, you can get a handle on the law with a breakdown that summarizes the statutory language. Read the helpful chart below for information on protections for unmarried parents in D.C.
District of Columbia Code Division II. Judiciary and Judicial Procedure:
- Section 16-914 (custody of children)
- Section 16-909-01 (establishment of paternity by voluntary acknowledgment/genetic test results)
- Section 16-909-03, 16-909-04 (voluntary paternity acknowledgment program)
Because there isn't typically any doubt about a mother's paternity, an unmarried mother has full and legal custody of their child automatically.
A husband is automatically considered a legal father to any child born of the marriage. In contrast, an unwed father must establish paternity before any parental rights and duties are triggered. In D.C., paternity is established in the following ways:
- Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity; or
- Court Order.
Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity
If both parents agree, they may sign an Acknowledgment of Paternity. Then the father's name will be placed on the child's birth certificate. Signing the form takes away the need to establish paternity in court.
Paternity can be established by first filing a petition in Superior Court if the parents don't agree about paternity. The court may order genetic testing. If the test proves that a man is the biological father, then the court will issue an order that establishes the child's paternity. After paternity is established, then the custody and visitation and child support issues may be settled.
Custody and Visitation
Unless the court determines that it's not in the best interests of the child, the court may issue a child custody order that provides for:
- Frequent and continuing contact between each parent and the minor child;
- The sharing of responsibilities of child-rearing; and
- The encouraging the love, affection, and contact between the minor child and the parents, regardless of marital status.
The D.C. courts presume that it's in the best interests of the child for the parents to have joint custody, except where the court finds that there's an instance of the following:
Whether the parent is married or unmarried, if a parent is awarded "legal custody", they have the right to make major decisions about the child's health care, education, and religious upbringing. The parents will either share "legal custody" or one parent is awarded sole legal custody.
The parent that doesn't get physical custody of the child will get time to spend with the child through visitation.
Parents Rights to Information
All parents (including unmarried parents) have the right to specific information about the child, including the right to review and inspect education records and access to medical and mental health records.
Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.
Protection for Unmarried Parents in D.C.: Related Resources
Discuss D.C. Child Custody Law for Unmarried Parents with a Lawyer
If you're an unmarried parent in D.C., you might have additional questions about your rights and responsibilities under the law. Talking to an experienced lawyer can give you the legal insight you need. Contact a child custody attorney near you today to learn more.