Unmarried Parenting Guide

Guidance for unmarried parents on many issues they face in raising their children together.

Every child has two parents

For their child's sake, unmarried parents need to figure out how to bring up their child together -- while being apart. For fathers, that means being responsible and cooperating with their children's mothers. For mothers, that means supporting the relationships their children have with their fathers.

Managing your relationship

Parents are partners

Unmarried parents have all kinds of relationships. Some live together. Some spend time together, but live apart. Others get together again... and many split up forever, often starting new relationships. But no matter what, all unmarried parents are connected permanently through their children.

In many of these situations, one or both parents still have feelings about the other parent. Maybe you'd like to get back together. Maybe you are just curious about who the other parent is with now.

Whatever your feelings, focus your attention on your child and leave your relationship with the other parent out of it. What happened between the two of you is not as important as your child having two involved parents.

Communication is the key

Throughout your child's life, there are going to be many occasions when you will have to exchange information with the other parent, make a decision together or attend the same event. The two of you need to find a way to communicate without fighting. For many people, it's helpful to set rules about where, when and what you talk about.

Resolving conflict

In good communication, it's okay to disagree. In fact, if you can show your child how to resolve conflict calmly, you are teaching the child a valuable lesson. But, seeing grown-ups fight is scary for children.

If you cannot disagree without losing control, you need to make special arrangements to communicate with your child's other parent calmly and safely. See the "Other tips for successful visitation" section for suggestions.

Other tips for managing your relationship

Treat each other with respect

Never badmouth the other parent. Remember that you're talking about your child's mother or father!

Grown-up talk is for grown-ups

Don't discuss problems related to

  • Child support
  • Parenting
  • Visitation or
  • Your relationship

in front of your child.

Successful visitation and parenting time

Be there

Imagine how a child feels if his or her father visits only every now and then, or worse yet, doesn't visit at all. Abandoned? Unloved? Worthless?

Children whose fathers don't have regular, positive contact with them are more likely to

  • Be poor
  • Drop out of school
  • Use drugs and
  • Become teen parents.

If you want your child to have the best chance in life, you have to show the child they are important to you by calling and seeing him or her regularly.

Share your child

Mothers need to support fathers in spending time with their children. If you make it hard for him or don't let him visit at all, the person you hurt most is your child. This is because:

  • It will be harder for you and your child's father to cooperate in the future.

  • Your child's father may become discouraged and stop spending time with your child.

  • Your child may doubt his or her father's loves, or believe that the conflict is his or her fault.

Make special arrangements if there are concerns about violence, high conflict, or unsafe behavior around the child.

Parenting plans

One of the best ways to make sure that your child has the responsible involvement of both parents is to create a parenting plan. This is a written agreement between the two of you that says how often, how long and when the noncustodial parent will spend time with the child.

The plan can also address topics such as your child's education, healthcare and religion, and describe a way to make child-rearing decisions together. Your plan should be consistent, but allow for changes once in a while if there are emergencies or special circumstances.

Often, unmarried parents are able to work out parenting plans themselves, or with the help of family, friends and community organizations. But, in situations where the parents cannot agree, either parent may ask the court to issue a visitation order. (For more on visitation orders, see the Legal aspects of unmarried parenthood section.)

Other tips for successful visitation

Keep calendars

Both parents need to inform each other of their plans ahead of time, especially when they affect visiting schedules.

Have regular meetings or phone calls

Plan a way to exchange information and make decisions together. Prepare lists of things to talk about beforehand.

Have a way to deal with disagreement

Don't let disagreements grow into fights. Agree ahead of time on how you will resolve conflict, whether by sending letters, making a special appointment or having a neutral third person present at your discussion.

Legal aspects of unmarried parenthood

Separate the issues

There are three major legal issues related to unmarried parenthood:

  • Paternity establishment

  • Child support and

  • Visitation.

Children have a right to all three. Even though it may seem unfair, you can have one without the other. For example, a father needs to pay child support even if the mother won't let him spend time with his child. Or a mother should let the father spend time with his child, even if he doesn't pay child support.

Paternity establishment

The only way your child can have a legal father is if you establish paternity. Most often this is done by both parents signing a form in the hospital or in the city or town clerk's office where the child was born. You can also request that the court order genetic marker testing and name the legal father.

Establishing paternity gives your child important rights he or she would not otherwise have. These include:

  • Financial support to help meet your child's needs

  • Access to the father's medical history in the case of illness or disease

  • Access to the father's benefits such as Social Security, pensions, health insurance, inheritance

Child support

Child support is a way for parents who don't live together to share the financial responsibility for their child. The parent living with the child spends a lot of income to meet the child's needs. So the other parent needs to provide income to help provide the child's

  • Food

  • Clothing

  • Housing

  • Transportation

  • School supplies, etc.

Usually child support is arranged through a court order. Either parent can ask for an order - directly from the court, or with the help of the child support agency (in Massachusetts, the Department of Revenue).

Some parents, who don't have court orders, pay child support directly to the other parent. While this may seem easier when both parents are cooperating, it doesn't provide security for either one if there are disagreements.

If you are paying child support directly to the other parent - with or without a court order - keep written records of all your payments to avoid disputes. Money order receipts and cancelled checks are good payment records. It is best not to make child support payments in cash.

Visitation order

Visitation establishes a way for a parent who doesn't live with a child to spend regular time with the child. It is different from legal or physical custody. Legal custody is the right to make decisions about the child's

  • Daily activities

  • Healthcare

  • Religion and

  • Education.

Physical custody is who the child lives with most of the time. Parents who agree on a visitation or parenting plan can have the court enter their agreements as orders. If parents can't agree, the court can make its own orders. The goal of the court is to make an arrangement that is in the child's best interest. This may be different from what one or both parents want.

What the court considers in creating visitation orders

  • Age and developmental stage of the child

  • The individual needs of the child

  • History of the relationship between the parents

  • How close parents live to each other

  • Parents' work schedule

  • Parents' problems such as

    • Substance abuse

    • Domestic violence

    • Child abuse or

    • A criminal record

* These are general guidelines, so not everything may fit your situation. This is especially true if there is a history of unsafe behavior during visits, high conflict between the parents or domestic violence. In these cases, the court may need to make recommendations about how to set up the visits to keep everyone safe.