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Advice for unwed Massachusetts parents

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 41 percent of children who are born in the United States are born to unwed mothers. This number represents a significant increase during the last 55 years when, according to the nonprofit Child Trends Data Bank, unwed mothers represented just five percent of the total number of U.S. women having children. Given the sheer number of children today whose parents aren't married, matters related to child custody are more important and complex than ever.

For unmarried parents who were never or are no longer together, for the sake of a child and each parent, it's important to take steps to secure a child custody and visitation agreement. In order for a father to be able to take action to petition for custody or visitation rights, he must legally establish paternity.

Establishing paternity can be done either voluntarily, which involves both parents signing and filing an acknowledgement of paternity or by court order via a genetic test. In either case, once paternity is established, a father can petition the court to gain custody or visitation rights. Additionally, a mother can file for child support and a child is able to obtain access to a father's Social Security, health care benefits, medical records and inheritance. It's important to note that all unwed parents, regardless of whether or not they are still together, should take steps to establish paternity.

Unwed parents who are not living together would be wise to consult with an attorney and take legal steps to obtain a court ordered child custody and visitation agreement. This is true even in cases where parents are on good terms as, over time, a relationship may change. Having a court-issued custody agreement also helps provide more stability to the lives of both parents and a child.

In cases where unwed parents cannot agree about custody and visitation matters or when one parent wants to make changes to an existing agreement, an attorney can assist. Child custody disputes are among the most contentious and heart retching of all legal battles. An attorney can represent a child's and parent's best interests in court and provide strong legal advocacy.

Source: Department of Revenue, "Unmarried Parenting Guide," Nov. 6, 2015

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