If you are the father of a child and you are not married to the child's mother the situation regarding child custody can be different than you imagine. If you are seeking custody, you need to understand a few important things about this situation.
Paternity must first be established
Paternity is a situation in which the father is not known, and as far as the courts are concerned, unless you are married to the mother, there is no father. For this reason, paternity must be established. This can be done through DNA testing or signing legal documents. DNA testing is the best way because you are assured that you are, in fact, the father. However, you can also become the father in certain states by agreeing to be named on the birth certificate while other states allow you to sign what is called a declaration paternity. Either way, you are declaring yourself to be the father.
What if the mother refuses to establish paternity
One of the chief reasons to establish paternity is to get financial benefits from the father. For this reason, it is usually in the mother's interest to have a man establish himself as the father. If he refuses, a paternity suit can be filed. If for some reason the mother will not acknowledge that you are the father, it can be difficult to file a paternity suit against the mother. You will likely need to negotiate with the mother. Once she understands that it is in her interest to establish paternity, she may agree. However, if she still doesn't agree, you can explain the importance of the child knowing who his or her true father is.
Custody is not easily awarded
Once paternity is established, you can seek custody, but whether it is sole custody or joint custody, a single father of an unwed mother seldom gets any form of custody. This is much different than when a married couple divorces. In the case of a single mother, it must be made clear to the judge that the woman is unfit to be a mother. Other than this, you will have the right to visitation, and are likely to be granted this right. Of course, if you end up without full custody, you will be paying child support, but if you are seeking custody of your child, paying child support shouldn't be an issue for you.
Unmarried fathers do not have the same rights as fathers who had children born during their marriage; however, there are possibilities, and the laws vary from state to state. Make sure you consult with a family attorney before you agree to anything verbally or in writing.