What are the Child Custody Rights of Unmarried Parents in Pennsylvania?


When unmarried parents decide to separate, determining who gets custody of the child can become contentious. In Pennsylvania, unmarried parents may have to deal with additional hurdles that their married counterparts do not face when resolving child custody disputes. From establishing paternity to determining child support, every step of the process can be more challenging for unmarried parents.

How Do the Legal Rights of Unmarried Parents for Child Custody Differ from the Rights of Married Parents in Pennsylvania?

In Pennsylvania, unmarried parents’ rights regarding child custody tend to differ from the rights of married parents. When a child is born to married parents, both the mother and the father are presumed to be the biological and legal parents of the child. As a result, they are presumed to have equal custodial rights.

On the other hand, when a child is born to unmarried parents, only the unmarried mother is presumed to be the biological and legal parent of the child. The father can assert his legal rights and responsibilities, including legal and physical custody, shared custody, or visitation rights, only after paternity is established.

Judges Hammer

How Can an Unmarried Father Affirm His Paternity in Pennsylvania?

Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity

Under this arrangement, both parents can sign an Acknowledgement of Paternity (AOP) form, which is typically available at the hospital at the time of the child’s birth. It can also be obtained through the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services. Once the form is processed, the father’s name can be entered into the child’s birth certificate, which establishes them as the legal parent of the child.

DNA Testing

If the father refuses to voluntarily acknowledge paternity or if there is a dispute regarding paternity, either parent can request the family court for DNA testing to be done. Once paternity is established, the mother has the right to seek child support from the father and the father has the right to seek custody or visitation rights.

Child Support Obligations of Unmarried Fathers in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, unmarried fathers have the same child support obligations as married fathers. Once paternity is established (either voluntarily or through DNA testing), the father is required to pay child support to the mother.

Child support payments in Pennsylvania are generally calculated using a formula that considers a number of factors, such as the parents’ combined income, the amount of time the child spends with each parent, child care expenses, and more.

Two Persons Holding Hands

Types of Child Custody Arrangements Available for Unmarried Parents in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, a custody agreement is primarily of two types – physical custody and legal custody. Physical custody refers to the living arrangement of the child where the child resides on a day-to-day basis. A parent with physical custody is primarily responsible for providing the child with food, shelter, and daily care.

Legal custody refers to the authority to make life decisions for the child – including the child’s education, healthcare, and religious upbringing. If a parent is granted sole legal custody, they can make all the decisions for the child without consulting the other parent. If they are granted shared legal custody, they both have equal rights to make decisions for the child.

The different types of custody arrangements available for unmarried parents in Pennsylvania, depending on the best interests of the child, include:

  • Sole Custody – One parent has full physical and legal custody of the child.
  • Primary Physical Custody – One parent has primary physical custody of the child (the child lives with them more than 50% of the time) and the other parent has partial physical custody and gets to spend time with the child based on a court-approved schedule.
  • Shared Physical Custody – Also referred to as joint custody, it is an arrangement where the child resides with each parent for a significant amount of time. This arrangement allows both parents to make decisions for the child and be equally involved in the child’s life.
  • Supervised Partial Physical Custody – The non-custodial parent gets to spend time with the child based on a court-approved schedule under the supervision of a third-party, which could be a family member, social worker, or any other party, as specified in the court order.

To learn about interim custody orders, read this post about What are Interim Custody Orders?

How Our Pennsylvania Family Law Attorneys Can Help You with Child Custody Disputes

Legal Guidance and Advice: We can explain your rights and legal options under Pennsylvania family law and help you understand the legal process so that you have a realistic expectation of the outcome that can be achieved.

Paternity Establishment: If paternity has not been established, we can guide you through the process of establishing paternity, whether through genetic testing or a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity.

Custody Petition Preparation: We can assist you in preparing and filing all necessary legal documents, including custody petitions and any other paperwork required by the court.

Negotiation and Mediation: We can represent your interests during negotiations with the other parent or in mediation sessions and work to reach a mutually agreeable custody arrangement without the need for court intervention.

Court Representation: If your case goes to court, we can provide strong and effective representation on your behalf, presenting evidence and arguments to support your case and advocating for your parental rights and the best interests of your child.

Enforcement and Modification: If necessary, we can also help you enforce an existing custody order or request the court to modify the custody arrangement if there has been a significant change in circumstances.

Get Our Experienced Pennsylvania Child Custody Lawyer on Your Side

At Very Law, we understand the unique legal hurdles faced by unmarried parents when asserting their parental rights. It is why we are committed to providing personalized, compassionate legal representation to unmarried parents involved in child custody disputes.

Whether you are seeking to establish paternity, negotiate custody and visitation agreements, or modify existing arrangements, our seasoned family law attorneys can expertly guide you through the process and aggressively advocate for your rights and interests at every step.

With a deep understanding of Pennsylvania family law, extensive experience and a proven track record in family law matters, we are strongly positioned to meet your goals and achieve the best possible outcome for you and your child. 

Call us today at 412-430-0131 or use our online contact form to schedule a consultation with a trusted Pennsylvania child custody attorney at our firm.

Ryan D. Very, Esq.

Ryan D. Very, Esq.


Like his grandfather who practiced law before him, Ryan Very is a zealous Pittsburgh trial attorney who works tirelessly to assert his clients’ rights and promote justice.

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