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A reader writes:

I have a question about child custody. My baby's father and I never married, and I did not include his name on the birth certificate. Can I presume that I have sole custody, or do I need to file for custody even though my daughter lives with me?

Ultimately, the answer to this commonly-asked question depends on where you live. In some states, like Oklahoma, it is presumed that the mother has sole custody in cases where the parents were unmarried at the time of the child's birth and no father is listed on the birth certificate. However, other states make no presumption of custody based on the birth certificate.

Therefore, it's important that you take the time to learn the child custody laws in your state. Even if you're working closely with a lawyer whom you trust, you'll want to be an advocate for yourself and your child by studying up on the law.

Read Child Custody Laws in the United States to access the domestic relations statutes in your state and familiarize yourself with the local laws that are pertinent to your family's situation.

Photo (c) Nancy Catherine Walker

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February 7, 2007 at 10:55 am
(1) Jill says:

In massachusetts the mom gets sole custody unless the father files for paternity.

February 7, 2007 at 4:59 pm
(2) Jennifer Wolf says:

Thank you. Yes, that’s true. It actually came up recently in the forum, but I was unable to find it in the MA statues. But I just took another look, and I finally found it in Chapter 209C, Section 10, (b): “Prior to or in the absence of an adjudication or voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, the mother shall have custody of a child born out of wedlock. In the absence of an order or judgment of a probate and family court relative to custody, the mother shall continue to have custody of a child after an adjudication of paternity or voluntary acknowledgment of parentage.” Thanks!!!!

February 15, 2007 at 8:48 pm
(3) Joel Johnston says:

This question seems odd to me. I understand the issues when a father doesn’t get involved with his children and causes them to grow up without a father in their life.

What I don’t understand is what benefit a responsible mother sees by not putting the name of a father on the birth certificate of a child? Unless they have abusive issues, physical, drug or alcohol. Outside of that, what possible excuse could one have beyond their own self serving needs, and without regard for the long term well being of the child.

Is there a reason why a reasonable person would keep a child from knowing who their father is? I don’t get that?

What would happen if the mother died and there were medical issues for the child. It seems that the family history at a minimum would be important to the health and welfare of the child.

Would the child not benefit from having the father in their life. After all, per Doctor Phil – “The most important role model in a childs life is the parent of the same sex”.

There are plenty of discussion on this forum regarding single parents looking for “me” time. For me, me time is when my children are with their mother. The rest of the time is “their” time.

February 15, 2007 at 9:38 pm
(4) Jennifer Wolf says:

I can see your point about wondering why one would ask the question, and Iím no advocate of leaving a father off the birth certificate; but itís actually an issue that comes up frequently for women who are pregnant and unmarried. As you might imagine, because the laws vary state to state, women are sometimes misled to believe that leaving dadís name off the birth certificate will protect them if he should later want custody. In most states, though, thatís not the case, and my intent in writing the article was to point that out. As for the emphasis on self-care, I can see where it might seem like a non-issue for you, and I actually love how you described it as ďtheir timeĒ when the kids are with you. That’s great, and your children are very fortunate. However, there are a lot of single parents who donít have the support of a co-parent or family members to help out, and taking some time to take care of themselves benefits their children tremendously. Itís a key factor in helping them to be intentional about building a better life for themselves and their children, which I applaud. Itís easy to think of it as selfish, but itís actually a powerful way to model balanced living for our children.

March 8, 2007 at 8:31 pm
(5) Pat says:

I’m a single mom w/ kids born out of wedlock in California and we now live in Virginia. Under which state do I fall to determine if I have sole custody? Given that, what is the answer to this: Do I have sole custody or do I have to go to the courts and beg for custody of kids I’ve been taking care of by myself??

October 29, 2008 at 1:58 pm
(6) Elizabeth says:

I am a single unwed mother and live in South Dakota. My daughter’s father and I have never been married. His name is on her birth certificate and he lives in Nebraska. Do I have sole custody of her?

November 5, 2008 at 10:14 pm
(7) Sherry says:

My daughter is expecting soon, she was on birth control but it was canceled when she was put on very strong antibiotics and she was broke-up with the father when she found out. She does not want to put his name on the certificate. She does not want any child support either, it would just be more expense and doesn’t think he will be able to support. She does want the child to know her father and his family.

She is very worried because of the situation
her cousin went through last year. A very painful situation when her boyfriend and his family decided that they would not give her baby back. She had allowed the family to take the baby to church and when she went to pick her up, the baby’s father and his mother refused to let her have her child. This is when she found out about filing for custody of her child. She was not allowed to see her baby for 3 weeks and a situation came up when she was able to take her child and run home.

Of course this was not the end. It took more than 6 months to resolve the situation. They broke up because the father got on drugs. She finally got custody when after several appearances and drug test he continued to test positive. My niece also was drug tested but was clean.

I am sure the father will sign whatever to have his name on the birth certificate. My daughter has not told him that she does not want to put his name on the birth certificate. A lot of her fear is his mother and the control she has over her son’s and their girlfriends. She feel his mother may try something – the baby is the first blood related grandchild and is a girl, also the first girl. The girl friends have sons (not blood related) and the mother calls them her grandchildren.

Well this story could go on – but can you tell us who to contact/go to start the custody procedures?

November 12, 2008 at 2:46 am
(8) Denee says:

I live in Oregon and am having a son out of wedlock. I would like to know if i have sole custody of my son when he is born.

November 12, 2008 at 12:21 pm
(9) jennifer says:

my daughter is an unmarried mother of a 7 mth old.her boyfriend will be moving away back to the area he grew up. same state however. she owns her own home provides health care has a stable job and family daycare, he is threatening shared custody. he doesn’t even have a job, moving home with his mother. she lives in new york.
should she be concerned?

December 1, 2008 at 7:00 pm
(10) Katherine says:


You’re daughter has nothing to worry about unless he tries to provide Paternity. If he does do this he would have to prove that he can and will provide for the child when it is with him. The courts will probably not give him even joint Custody based off the fact that he is moving in with his mother and doesn’t have a job. They would also want to do a home study and if your daughter gives good reason for not wanting him around her child there will not be a problem.

June 21, 2009 at 8:57 pm
(11) DAvid says:

I live in Florida and Oct. 1, 2008 a new law took affect that states both parents now have 50/50 custody. (I don’t use drugs, etc.. no arrests etc…) We were never married and my ex doesn’t seem to understand how important it is for us to start an open communication before the baby in here. I’m buying everything for the baby you can think of and all that good stuff. Honestly, I just love it and can’t wait for my little girl to be here in Aug. I don’t think she has even spent $100.00 on any baby stuff at all. I’m doing everything. She has a 2 year son which is not mine and I can’t remember her ever giving him even a birthday party at either of his birthdays. It really scares me that she has become very anti-social with her life and I’m in fear that my child will suffer because the mom is anti-social. My question is “am I just over reacting because of this or is it because I just want whats the best interest for our baby girl” I’m so confused and scared!! Is this something I can present in court if it ever came to that? I don’t want to have anything to do with the court because the only person that suffers is the baby no one else!! Thanks

December 3, 2009 at 1:50 pm
(12) Lindsey says:

My sons father is on the birth certificate, but he makes no attempt to see or even talk to my son. Im getting married soon and my son loves my fiance like a father and I want him to legally adopt my son. How do I get sole custody so my fiance can adopt him when were married?

January 19, 2010 at 12:32 am
(13) leslie says:

do i have full custody of my childern even though the father signed the birth certificate but the childern have lived with me all their lives

February 4, 2010 at 9:47 am
(14) kahla says:

in mississippi as long as the father signed the birthcertificate both parties have equal rights to the child and the only way to prove other wise is whom the child remains in the home with by school enrollment, or court filed custody papers

April 24, 2010 at 10:01 pm
(15) Airiel says:

My son was born out of wedlock and I want to change his last name to mine, how do I go about it?

April 25, 2010 at 6:49 pm
(16) Sam says:

Hello – I live in VA never married to my son’s father. His name is not on the birth certificate nor does he pay any child support. He indicates he wants to be a positive influence on his son’s life BUT he never comes to visit when we schedule time and turns off his phone not to be bothered if he doesn’t show. Obviously he has better things to do so why doesn’t he just admit he doesn’t want part in his life and allow me sole custody? Can I file for sole custody since there is nothing documented?

May 3, 2010 at 4:10 pm
(17) cat says:

i am 18 and just recently found out that i am pregnant, things have gone sour with me and my boyfriend, i would like his name on the birth certificate but i want full custody of my child if we can not set aside our differnces and make our relationship work, i know it sounds stupid but i feel if we are not together it would only cuase problems for our baby and for myself. what r my rights has an umarried mother to be?

August 17, 2010 at 12:29 am
(18) Jessica says:

I have 3 kids out of a 9 year relationship the father and I were never married! My kids and I moved out and I never stopped their dad from seeing them! one weekend he picked the kids up from daycare and when I went to get them Sunday as we discussed he wouldnt give me my kids! I have seeked help from the police and they wont help and I have gone to the state to help me with a lawyer so I can file for custody and get my kids home! He wont allow me to see my kids or even talk to them! This is driving me nuts. What are my chances of getting custody and what steps do I need to take!

August 28, 2010 at 4:01 pm
(19) jesscia says:

me (21) and the father (30) have a 4 month old child. we were never together. we’ve lived together for a total of 2 months. we had a verbal agreement that he would keep our son on tues and thurs but recently his parents came in town to visit our son i and had verbal and text agreement on the day and times he would keep our son he take it upon his own force and kept him longer than we had intially agreed he keep telling me “i know my rights” i already filed for child support after he kicked me and our son out. noe he is spending me to court because he doesn’t want to pay the child support. he has a legal aid lawyer but i can’t afford one becasue of daycare, my child needs, and personal bills. what is the next step i should do???

September 23, 2010 at 2:24 am
(20) Bianca says:

I have a 6mnth old child with my ex he also has a daughter whom he recently won full custody through lies and false testimonies and im afraid he may try to do the same to me although he denied the baby at birth and refused to get on the birth certificate or even give my son his last name up to this point i been raising the baby on my own and now that he has full custody of his daughter he is claiming that he has father rights with him as well. I am in Texas do i need to fight for full custody on my son or do i already have them?

January 20, 2011 at 12:40 am
(21) melissa says:

my sons father and I were together 10yrs. We have an 8yr old son. At the time of his birth our relationship was rocky and my parents didnt want us to put his name on the birth certificate. We decided that would be best. We also agreed for my son to have my last name incase anything. He moved away with my sister n her boyfriend to get a job n stuff. That didnt work so he moved back with me. He has been heer the whole time for my son. Until recently when he left to go live with his new gf. He contacted me and asked if i would let him claim my son on taxes and he would give me half of what he gets back…I told him no. Now he is making threats that he is going to file for joint custody of my son. I dont have the money to get a laywer or anything. Does he have the right sisnce he left and isnt on the birth certificate?

January 21, 2011 at 10:39 am
(22) michelle says:

@Pat, I live in VA and I filed for full custody

January 30, 2011 at 3:37 am
(23) Marisol says:

it depends on the state. For example, in New York State, having a birth certificate doesn’t have anything to do with either physical or legal custody. Just because you have your child with you doesn’t mean you have legal custody. Legal custody is something that you have to petition the court for. Sometimes single mothers are advised to file for legal custody anyway even if they have their babies with them for protection in case the bio-father wants to start trouble later on. There are many guys who all of a sudden start making allegations of child abuse, etc and trying to file for legal custody when they are served with child support papers.

May 15, 2011 at 12:59 pm
(24) Jerry says:

If the mother is an adult who has a guardian (in Ohio – guardian is not a blood relative) would her guardian automatically get custody or would the father?

October 12, 2011 at 2:05 pm
(25) shannon says:

what are the right in florida for my boyfriend if i took the kids to another state what can he do if he lives in florida and iam in ohio.

October 18, 2011 at 9:53 am
(26) lena says:

I am a mother out of wedlock with 2 children in pa i am looking to find out if i can leave the state of pa with my kids to live in another state….I hope u guys can help me on this question

November 22, 2011 at 1:21 pm
(27) Taja says:

I am a single mom of a 2 yr old daughter. I want to know if I have sole custody of her? me and her dad have never been married and his name IS on the birth certificate and he was there for her birth

November 27, 2011 at 1:24 am
(28) taz says:

TX: Parents never married, he is on b/c. No support financially. Mother let him take kids for visitation but father didnt’ return them at the agreed upon time. We called police and were told (by officer) that unless there is a court order specifing custody, visitation he couldn’t do anything about him being 1 hour late. He said, “unless I see a piece of paper stating you have legal custody I can’t get your children back if he were to keep them after taking them to visit, same goes for him, If he comes here and she shuts the door and calls us, we can’t do anything to help him see his kids”.
I misunderstood the research I did on the internet because it said mother in texas has full custody of child and father has not rights until HE petitions the courts for such, and only after establishing paternity (even if he is listed on the birth certificate). All this from the police officer admitting he had just gone through a divorce himself which I would think is irrelevant because the two individuals we called are unwed parents. Children are home safe and next week we start the legal process of custody, etc. etc.

January 18, 2012 at 12:31 am
(29) alicia says:

I have a 3year year old son with an exboyfriend of mine that I was never married to,his names on the birth certificate,but hasn’t seen him in almost two years because he was arrested on drug charges,I do not want him to have anything to do with me or my son because he is abusive along with a few other things. Please tell me what I might have to do? I need to understand where to start

April 11, 2012 at 2:53 pm
(30) Eva says:

My daughter is pregnant underage and unwed what are we looking at as far as custody issues at this time we live in nc. They plan on marrying after she graduates since I will not allow it before she turnes 18.

July 12, 2012 at 4:02 pm
(31) Ian says:

I am a unmarried father of 2 girls. Their mother dropped them off at her stepdads 23 months ago. I got them after I had to file a order of protection against her for me & our girls. They have been in my home for the full 23 months. She has done nothing at all to help me with them. Order of protevtion runs out in about 4 weeks. She is saying she is taking the girls from me. I live in Tennessee and I can’t afford a lawyer. Can she take my babies that easy after so long not having any contact.

August 5, 2012 at 12:42 pm
(32) pat says:

i have temopory guarudianship for my grand childern the mother is out ofstate one of thefathers justgot paper to go to court to see if heis the father but if is is can he get full custody of the child that he says is his

August 10, 2012 at 1:16 am
(33) Erin says:

I am a 23 yr old unwed mother. I live in pa. I have been with there father for 4 yrs. He is abusive he helps with them but dont. He is 46 I aohnm wondering if I can leave the state. I want to move to Fl.

August 13, 2012 at 4:04 pm
(34) sarah says:

I live in massachusetts. my sons bio dad isnt on the birth certificate, he was very abusive to me, and at 5 months prego after he kicked me and threw stuff at me and pushed me down I broke up with him. Later he went to jail for a year for violating probation. My son was diagnosed with cancer at 8 months old and his father came to see him 2 times in the hospital, then reaccured at 1 1/2 and he saw him 2 times, when he made a promise to him he would be back and didnt show up i told him not to show his face again. I have had a restraining order on him for 1 1/2 years now.

I am now married, my husband is his ” daddy” ( not bio ) pays for our home pays for food and clothing and most importantly is that role model in his life.

I was wondering what rights he ( bio) would have if something happen to me like I passed away. and what I can do to prevent him from getting ” next of kin” if anything should happen?

September 24, 2012 at 3:50 pm
(35) Bessie says:

Who has the sole custody of unwanted or never married couple in AZ? Can a police escort be used to get the child from the father?
Child went for a visit for couple of days and father refused to return child back to the mother.

September 25, 2012 at 2:38 am

My son had a child out of wedlock in georgia. his name is on birth certificate and was there for the birth of a premature baby and visited the child with mother, when the child came home in March the baby lived in our home with both parents up until mid August. my son decided that he could no longer be in the relationship. she went home and took baby. my son had her august 17-20 and took the child home. he never gave any indication that he would or wanted to take the child from the mother. within 3 days she decided he could have supervised visits without any logical reason because of issues with her family he decided he would not visit his daughter in there home because it was unhealthy for the child so in the next two weeks after we the grandparents were completely cut out after we supported the child for 4 months because neither of them had jobs we were left with nothing and my son was told have his attorney contact hers. so many fathers are denied rights by the mothers simply because they can. you have fathers that step up and fathers that will not but my son wanted to be a father and loves his daughter very much.

December 3, 2012 at 5:18 pm
(37) Michelle says:

My daughter has a 9 month old and her and the father aren’t together they live in Texas she wants to know if she has sole custody of her because she wants to move back home but his name is on the birth certificate I would appreciate any help you can give us at this point.

December 18, 2012 at 2:14 am
(38) jennifer says:

I live in Tennessee and I am pregnant with my first child now. I was never married to the father. He has made it very clear that he wants nothing to do with me or the baby and has since married another woman. I am now in a new relationship and if things continue the way they are, my boyfriend wants to be the father figure for my child. Can I legally put his name on the birth certificate? And if do, could the real father come back and change his mind?

December 23, 2012 at 3:48 pm
(39) Travis says:

In Arizona does the court usualy side with the mother in custody battles in situations where the parents were not married and the mother has denied access to the child?

March 18, 2013 at 3:26 am
(40) jessica says:

I’m a 22 year old girl and I have a 10 month old baby girl with my ex who is 25.during my pregnancy he denied he was the father, told me that he wants nothing to do with her after she’s born and when she turns 18 and wants to get ahold of him that’s fine. I told him well even if you would want to see her when she is born you’d have to be living in a different home. He was living in an apartment that had drugs going in and out of it and men going in and out. So obviously my baby would never be there. Then the two kittens we had he later during the winter dropped them off on the side of the road and laughed when he told me,I was 7 months pregnant.in january my uncle passed sadly. I had to break the news to my cousin that her dad had passed while I was pregnant.then in late April my best friend Johnny ruschak from high school died suddenly of heart failure. When I told Cory Johnny just passed away, he said I was a selfish bitch. When she was born- he wasn’t there and was still denying her. Slept with two of my friends and made me take a paternity test to let him know for sure that our baby was really his. After that I only seen him 3 other times because I took it upon myself to go see him with our baby so he could visit. To this day,months later, he lives in his friends closet in an apartment, still does drugs and works under the table. He has not provided anything for our daughter. So I figured I’d text him saying would you be able to help out with diapers or wipes. I told him if he didn’t want to see us he can drop them off In the mail box.He then proceeded to bring up weird things from 4 years ago trying to make me feel bad.Then said you better be ready to cope with me getting weekends with her.I am so upset about him even trying because he is not fit at the moment to be a father.I am so scared I cry everytime I think of my baby girl being alone with him and whoever else.Please help me if anyone has and advice for me on how to get sole custody of my baby girl.

April 29, 2013 at 8:15 pm
(41) Sara says:

All of you going on and on about a single, unwed mother not adding the father to a birth certificate because of her selfish needs is stupid. You CAN’T put someone’s name on a birth certificate if they choose to believe they aren’t the father. If they are questioning paternity, as most men that aren’t married do, then you can’t just go adding them on a legal document without their permission. My daughters father isn’t on the certificate now, but now that paternity is established he has to go back and have the certificate amended. He was the one that made a choice to NOT be a part of her life, until he was confronted with legal action and proven to be the actual father. So stop saying mothers are selfish when it comes to the birth certificate and not adding in the father. There are other contributing factors here.

August 1, 2013 at 3:23 pm
(42) Concerned Mother says:

My daughter who is 35 years old with a child is living with the father of her son but has recently filed for sole and physical custody of her 11 year old son. She left the father and has since went back to him. The father is counter suing her for sole, physical and limited visitation rights for her. Does anyone know if there is a chance she could lose her rights to the child?

October 19, 2013 at 6:50 pm
(43) KIra says:

I live in Ohio and want to move to Virginia with my child I have all rights to her can I move?

February 16, 2014 at 1:14 am
(44) sara says:

I left my childs dad off the birth certificate becuase he disappeared when i was 6 months pregnant. In texas the father has to sign paper work and the paternity papers. He was not there to sign them so i didnt put his name down. When my baby was 3 months old he showed back up and i immediately put him on child support. At this point he signed the paternity papers and his name was added to her birth certificate. The custody agreement was established at the same time. Just the basic agreement of baby lives with me but he has vistation every other weekend and alternating holidays and can see her every thursday evening. If i want it modified i would have to hire a attorney and go to court. Well he stuck around for about 9 months. Then disappeared for about 10 months and during that time told me he was going to sign his rights over ( child support was garnishing his wages and he wanted it to stop) but in texas a father can not sign his rights over with out the mother being married and the step parent adopting the child. He contacted me about a week ago saying if he has to pay child support then he might as well see her. We met today at a park. Of course my 22 month old daughter had no clue who he was. I told him he needs to come see her everyother weekend at least one day. He responded that he may not beable to do that because he has a life. He has a 8 year old son he has met like 4 times over 8 years and another daughter a week younger then ours. The 10 months he disapeared he has been seeing his other daughter. He didnt meet her till right after her first birthday and thats when he stopped coming around my daughter. My daughter was and is still sickly and has had some surgeries and is on a special diet. His other daughter didnt have any problems so i am guessing thats why he has been in her life instead of my daughters. I wish there was something out there to punish fathers for abandoning their kids and only playing dad when they feel like it.

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