As an expectant parent—mother or father, or prospective adoptive parent, you may be wondering, do unmarried fathers have rights? This question is an important one to get proper answers to regardless of whether you are an unmarried father, an expectant mother not married to your baby’s father, or a hopeful adoptive parent trying to understand the adoption process and the role of the birth father. There are lots of nuances to this question and this article seeks to provide answers and information as you try to better understand the adoption process for all members of the adoption triad—birth parents, child, and adoptive parents. 

Establishing Paternity at the Hospital

To understand if unmarried fathers have rights, you must know that rights are afforded to anyone by laws and regulations. Some such laws sit at the federal level and are pertinent to all United States citizens. Most laws, however, sit at the state or local level. When it comes to adoption law and the rights of unmarried fathers, those laws and regulations are at the state level. Essentially, the paternity rights of unmarried fathers vary from state to state. 

In most states, if a couple has a child and they are married it is legally presumed that the father is the husband of the mother. This legal presumption does not exist when the baby is born to unmarried parents. The onus is on the father to establish paternity of his child, especially if it is called into question or he would like to establish parental rights to his child. If the unmarried father does not establish paternity in his state, the unmarried father will not have rights. He will not have the right to visitation with his child and he will be left out of any shared custody agreementor any decisions for that matter, regarding his child. 

If the father is willing, the easiest way to establish paternity as an unmarried father is to ensure that the father’s name is on the baby’s birth certificate. Unmarried fathers can do this by being present in the hospital with the mother of his baby during the birth of his child. If the unmarried father and mother are not close or in a relationship, he can be at the hospital after the baby is born and make sure that he helps the mother complete the birth certificate forms which are provided by the hospital staff after the birth of the baby. 

Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity (AOP) Form

There are other ways that an unmarried father can establish his rights to his child. If he is unable to be in the hospital when the baby is born to help complete the birth certificate forms, the father can complete the Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity (AOP) form after the child is born.

The Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity (AOP) form ensures that an unmarried father has certain rights as the father of the child. Keep in mind that only certain rights are afforded to the unmarried father by signing the Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity (AOP) form, however, it is important to know that certain other parental rights must be guaranteed through other means, but more on that later. 

The Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity (AOP) form is the mechanism to begin the process to establish legal rights to the child as the unmarried father. Without signing the Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity (AOP) form, the unmarried father does not have any parental rights to the child and would need to go to court at a later date to establish paternity and request from the court parental rights to the baby.

There are times when the birth parents do not agree on signing a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity form. If this is the case, the unmarried father may still have to request the court for a hearing to establish paternity of the child and grant him parental rights in the family or juvenile court. If this process happens, the paternity of the child is proven after the birth certificate forms are completed and the birth certificate is issued. 

When completing the Acknowledgement of Paternity form, the unmarried father will be asked for some basic identifying information including the baby’s full name, mother’s full name, father’s full name, date of birth, address, and social security number. The form is then signed and notarized by both the birth mother and birth father. As stated earlier, each state has its own laws regarding juveniles, paternity, and adoption. The laws in your respective state, or the state in which the child is born, if you do not live in that state, may also include the requirement that the signing of the Acknowledgement of Paternity is witnessed by two uninterested parties. 

The Acknowledgment of Paternity will give the father the right to be responsible for child support, to include the father’s last name on the child’s birth certificate, and the right be consulted if the birth mother is contemplating an adoption plan for the child. 

In most states, certain rights are not afforded to the unmarried father after just signing the Acknowledgment of Paternity. One of those rights is child custody—both legal and physical custody of the child. If the unmarried father would like any visitation, joint physical custody, or legal custody rights to the child, he will need to go through a separate family court procedure to get those rights granted. 

Many unmarried fathers or expectant unmarried parents may be wondering where to find an Acknowledgment of Paternity. Those forms can be voluntarily signed and provided by the birthing facility or hospital in which the baby is born. If paternity is established after the birth of the baby, the birth mother and birth father can complete the Acknowledgement of Paternity by sending proof of paternity documentation to your respective state agency that handles vital records. 

If Paternity is Contested

There are situations when the birth mother or expectant mother contests the paternity of the unmarried father who claims paternity of the child. If the birth mother contests the unmarried father’s paternity, the father can still exercise his rights by petitioning the family or juvenile court in his city or county to establish paternity of the child. The process for establishing paternity when the mother contests will involve the unmarried father taking a paternity test. The court may require that the mother cooperates through the legal process. The father can also contact the child support enforcement agency in his respective state to initiate the paternity process to establish his parental rights as an unmarried father.

Paternal Registry 

Most states have a paternity registry or Putative Father Registry. The Putative Father Registry can be difficult to locate and there are often complaints that various states have little information available for unmarried fathers regarding the Putative Father Registry in their specific state. It is important to find your respective state’s Putative Father Registry, but there are some aspects of the Putative Father Registry which are similar across states for unmarried fathers. Understanding this registry is especially important if you want to know if unmarried fathers have rights in regards to adoption and the adoption process. 

The Putative Father Registry exists as a public potential fathers’ registry that is maintained by the United States Department of Vital Records so that unmarried fathers can register themselves if they believe they are a father to a respective child. Basically, by the unmarried father adding his name to the Putative Father Registry, he is claiming he is the father of the child, thus claiming paternity, and further the unmarried father is claiming financial responsibility for the child and can be subject to child support to the child’s mother. The term putative refers to the unmarried man being a potential father to the child, however, this paternity has not yet been established formally through the court system. 

You may be wondering as you are exploring whether unmarried fathers have rights, what the purpose of the Putative Father Registry is and what it is used for in regards to establishing the rights of the father. The most common reason unmarried men register with their state’s Putative Father Registry is if they think the mother of their child was going to go through with an adoption plan for his baby. The Putative Father Registry would potentially support the father in his objection to the adoption plan or placement of the child. This also allows the father to be made aware of any possibility of parental rights of his child to be terminated, as a result, it is also a helpful registry for adoption agencies or adoption attorneys to use to find any potential putative father if the mother is contemplating an adoption plan. 

It is important for unmarried fathers who are pursuing their paternity or parental rights to the child to register with their respective state’s Putative Father Registry as quickly as possible. Most states have a window, often thirty days after the birth of the baby, with which the father must be registered in his state’s system to ensure he is informed of any potential adoption plan. This thirty-day window is also applicable when establishing the unmarried father’s rights through paternity proceedings in family or juvenile court.

The Putative Father Registry will include information regarding your identifying information. This will usually include the unmarried father’s name, date of birth, home address, other contact information, and even his social security number. Some states do not have a Putative Father Registry, as of 2017 there were only 25 states in the United States that had a paternity, or Putative Father Registry. It is a good rule of thumb for the unmarried father to register with the Putative Father Registry as soon as he learns the mother of his child is pregnant. This will help avoid any potential adoption procedures if she wishes to choose that for her or her baby. 

In conclusion, as an unmarried father who is trying to understand his rights, or as an expectant mother or hopeful adoptive parent, it is important to understand what rights the unmarried father is entitled to and also the ways in which he can exercise these rights. Through paternity testing, the Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity (AOP) form, court requests to establish paternity, and the Putative Father Registry in his respective state, the father has various mechanisms for establishing his rights as an unmarried father. 

If you want to understand if unmarried fathers have rights, you are taking the first steps in learning about the process as to how an unmarried father could and would establish his paternity and desire to have parental rights to his child. Doing more research on your state’s respective adoption and paternity laws is also critical. An experienced adoption agency can help you navigate the process, regardless of whether you decide to go through with an adoption plan. They can answer your questions and point you in the right direction. 

Jennifer Mellon has worked in the child welfare field for more than a decade, serving in varying capacities as the Executive Director and Chief Development Officer of Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS) and the Corporate Communications Program Manager for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI). Jennifer has served on the Board of the Campagna Center, which provides critical educational services to children and families in the DC Metro Area and on the Development Committee for the National Council for Adoption. She is the mom of three children and resides in Alexandria, Virginia.