The Office for National Statistics reported that in 2020 just under half of all babies in England and Wales were born to unmarried parents. By comparison 5.4% of babies’ parents in 1960 were unmarried. This major societal change has meant that there are more unmarried fathers than ever before who are anxious not to miss out on their children’s lives and want to understand what parental rights they have.
Although all children have a right to a relationship with both parents, unmarried fathers do not always share the same rights in relation to their biological children as married fathers. As an unmarried father, you could be one of the child’s two ‘legal’ parents but this is not the same as having parental responsibility – and it is the latter that is critical if you want to be involved in your children’s upbringing.
What is a legal parent?
A child can have a maximum of two legal parents, one of whom is always the birth mother, regardless of her circumstances and marital status, and will be named on the child’s birth certificate. The other legal parent is usually, but not always, the genetic father. For instance, if the mother is married or in a civil partnership, then her spouse (who may not necessarily be the biological father) or civil partner will be presumed to be the legal father, unless this presumption is rebutted. An unmarried biological father will be the other legal parent only if the mother is not married or in a civil partnership. A legal parent is financially responsible for their child / children; and confers nationality status and hereditary rights on those children. Changing a legal parent can only be done by adoption or through a parental order made by the Family Court following a surrogacy arrangement.
Having parental responsibility (PR) means that, as a father, you are entitled to have an equal say in the decisions affecting the upbringing of your child / children. This will include their health, wellbeing and welfare, education, religion and where they live.
Unlike legal parents, the number of people who can have PR is unlimited. Nonetheless, it is only the birth mother who has automatic PR. If she is married or in a civil partnership, her spouse/civil partner will also automatically have PR. An unmarried father can only acquire PR by:
- Marrying the birth mother;
- Entering into a formal, written PR agreement with the mother;
- Obtaining a PR order or a child arrangements for the child to live with you from the Family Court; or
- Being registered as the father on the birth certificate of a child born on or after 1 December 2003.
Obtaining parental responsibility via a court order
If, as an unmarried father who is not named on the birth certificate, your child’s mother refuses to agree to you sharing parental responsibility, you can apply for a court order but bear in mind that the court will always have the child’s best interests at the heart of any application. The court will consider your commitment to the child and the state of your relationship, as well as the reasons for making the application when deciding to grant it.
The limits of parental responsibility
Having parental responsibility does not mean that you automatically have the right to see your child / children if they do not live with you but, if a dispute arises, it is presumed that the involvement of a parent in the child’s life will further the child’s welfare unless the contrary is shown. If child’s mother refuses access, you can apply to the court for a child arrangements order which will govern access arrangements to enable you to see your child, which can include living arrangements. The child’s welfare will be the court’s paramount consideration when considering any application.
It is also worth noting that if you have parental responsibility, this will be a shared right with neither parent having priority over the other. This means that if one parent wishes to pursue a course of action (vaccinating a child is a prime example) with which the other parent disagrees, then an application to the court will need to be made to determine the issue. Finally, whereas being a legal parent lasts a lifetime, parental responsibility ends when the child / children reach 18. It can also be revoked via a court order, although this is very rare.
Children always come first
If you are an unmarried father, not living with the mother of your child and not named on their birth certificate, you may feel unfairly discriminated against. However, there are clear routes you can explore in order to obtain parental responsibility to give you equal say in how your child is raised. Nonetheless, it is critical to remember that the courts will always put the children first so it is essential that you prepare your arguments carefully when applying for an order.
Our family team has considerable experience in helping unmarried fathers reach an agreement with their child’s mother to share parental responsibility. If court is the only option, we can help you prepare your case. We are always happy to have an initial chat to see if we can help you.