Many of today’s couples put off marriage or determine not to make their union legal for a variety of economic and social reasons. Approximately 23.2 percent of Colorado births occur to unmarried mothers. When unwed couples have children and then decide to separate, or when two people conceive a child outside of a committed relationship, questions arise about the way Colorado custody law works for unmarried parents. While like most states, Colorado acknowledges automatic rights for an unmarried mother, determining parental rights as a father isn’t as simple. A father must first establish paternity in court before claiming any legal rights to the child and a mother must establish a man’s paternity before asking for child support.
Importance of the Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity (VAP)
When unmarried parents agree to paternity, they can submit a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity form or VAP to the Colorado courts. Often unmarried couples sign this form after the birth of a child to add the father’s name to a baby’s birth certificate. In other cases, parents don’t sign a VAP until issues of custody and visitation arise in the case of a separation or with parents who aren’t in a relationship with each other.
It’s critical for an unmarried father to establish paternity if he wishes to enjoy parental rights just as it may be essential for a mother to establish her child’s paternity if she wishes to have financial support from her child’s father. In most cases, a judge will require a paternity test from an unmarried father to confirm paternity even if the father signs a VAP. This helps to avoid a man becoming legally bound to support a child that isn’t his own. In cases when a man doesn’t know or doesn’t believe that he’s the biological father of a child, he can request a court-ordered paternity test or the child’s mother may demand one in order to settle the question of paternity.
Understanding The Child’s Best Interests Standard When Establishing Primary Custody
Once a child’s paternity is clearly established in court, child custody arrangements follow the same guidelines for unwed parents as they do for divorcing parents. Primary custody and visitation laws in Colorado follow the “Child’s Best Interests Standard.” This law places the child’s best interests above all else in custody issues, including the parent’s desires. Whenever possible, the best way to arrange primary custody and visitation schedules for the child of unmarried parents is for the parents to agree to a schedule that works well for the child and for themselves. Colorado offers mediation with professionals in order to find workable custody schedules for unmarried or divorcing parents.
If parents can’t agree on primary custody and visitation, the matter falls to a judge to decide in court. Some factors a judge considers include the following:
- The quality of each parent’s relationship with the child
- History of parental interactions with the child
- Each parent’s mental health and physical health status
- Which parent has been the child’s main caregiver since birth
- Child’s background with a community, family support, and school system
- Each parent’s personal finances
- Each parent’s living arrangements
- Any history of domestic violence or addiction
- Children with special physical or emotional needs
- The child’s preferences or needs for children aged 14 and older
It’s important for unmarried parents to establish their legal rights to a child for matters of custody, visitation, and support. A dedicated family law attorney in Denver can help parents navigate the legalities of proving paternity, establishing parental rights, and setting a fair schedule for custody and visitation in Colorado.