Father holding baby to his chestMany people have children and choose not to get married for a variety of reasons, ranging from a lack of romantic interest to personal preferences regarding relationships. Whatever the parents’ reason, raising a child outside of marriage can create some confusion regarding custody rights. If both parents are together and happily cohabitating, custody may never be an issue. However, if there is a breakup, then the question of custody may lead to a contentious legal battle. It is important for Indiana parents to understand their rights in family court and to work with an experienced Carmel family lawyer to ensure they do not receive an unfair custody deal.

What Are Parenting Rights?

“Parenting rights” is the broad term for the legal rights of parents to be involved in their child’s life. Once a child is born, the mother is automatically awarded parenting rights, or maternity, in Indiana. For a father, paternity is only automatic when he is married to the child’s mother at the time of birth, when the child was born within 300 days of the parents’ divorce, or by the parents completing a paternity affidavit. If the parents were never married, then only the mother will have parenting rights unless the father can establish paternity in court.

Do I Need to Establish Paternity?

Establishing paternity ensures that a father can get custody or parenting time with his child in the event of a breakup, as well as ensuring that the child can receive health insurance, inheritance, and other benefits from the father. Without establishing paternity, you will have no legal right to be a part of your child’s life, and the mother will have both primary legal and physical custody. Even if you are on good terms with the child’s mother, by establishing paternity you guarantee your legal rights to see and take care of your child in case your relationship with the mother ever turns sour.

Paternity can be established in two ways:

  • Paternity Affidavits: Both parents can voluntarily establish paternity by signing an affidavit that declares both the mother and the father as the child’s parents. This agreement can be signed and submitted to the State at the hospital within 72 hours of the child’s birth, or at any time before the child is legally emancipated (the child’s 18th birthday) if there is no father listed on the birth certificate. If either parent disagrees with the affidavit, then they must go through a court order to establish paternity. Either parent can also request a DNA test before signing an affidavit.
  • Court Order: Either parent may go to court to ask a judge to establish paternity. Doing so will not only establish the father’s right to custody, but also either parent’s right to child support. These cases can be uncontentious when both parents agree on paternity or contentious when one side disputes paternity. A judge will hear all evidence from both sides, which may include a DNA test, before making a decision.

Do I Have to Take a DNA Test?

You only have to take a DNA test if you, the other parent, or a judge requires it before establishing paternity. The State of Indiana does require fathers to take DNA tests at a state-approved laboratory and does not accept at-home or unapproved tests.

How Do Indiana Courts Decide Custody?

Indiana family courts prefer for both parents to be involved in their child’s life to ensure the child grows up in a healthy environment. However, the court’s primary goal is to make sure the child’s best interests are upheld, meaning it will adjust custody rights if it feels that one parent is unfit to take care of the child. Charges of child abuse, domestic violence, felony convictions, substance abuse issues, alienation, and contempt of court can all drive a court to take away a parent’s right to custody.

Indiana also prefers for parents to work together to create custody plans and settle any disputes out of court. If you can show that you and your child’s other parent can conduct yourselves professionally and will work together to uphold a custody plan, the court will take a hands-off approach unless necessary.

Our Carmel family law attorneys at Emerson Divorce and Accident Injury Attorneys, L.L.C., believe in standing up for parents’ rights in challenging custody cases. We know you wish to maintain your relationship with your child, and we are prepared to advocate for your interests before a judge. If you need legal representation in a Hamilton County family law case, reach out to our firm at (317) 969-8000. We can sit down with you in a free initial consultation and explain your rights.