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Who Has Child Custody When the Parents Are Unmarried?

Who Has Child Custody When the Parents Are Unmarried?

Child custody discussions are very common in divorce proceedings between parents. Based on the financial situation of each parent and the well-being of the children in question, the court decides how the children will split their time and what support each parent will need to provide. However, courts determine child custody in situations where parents are ending their marriage – but what happens when the parents were never legally married in the first place?

Unmarried Parents’ Legal Rights

Parental rights do not solely extend to married couples. Parents who have had a child together biologically or through adoption have the same parental rights as a married couple who is seeking a divorce. If unmarried parents are ending their relationship, they will need to enter the same discussions and courtroom processes as seen in a divorce.

Each parent should have a legal claim to the child, either through adoption or through biology; for example, a stepparent who adopts the biological child of his or her partner has the same legal rights as the biological parent. When the couple decides to end their relationship, they will need to settle their child custody issues either through mediation or through the courtroom.

The Child Custody Process

There are two pathways that an unmarried couple can take when determining child custody: they can choose to come to a custody arrangement through mediated discussions with their attorneys, or they can enter the trial process and have the court decide what is best for their children.

Typically, couples enter the mediation process first. They meet with their attorneys and attempt to make decisions for the well-being of their children, such as where the children will live, how much child support each parent will have to pay, and how the couple plans to split custody. If the couple is unable to come to an agreement in the negotiating room, they will move to the courtroom.

In court, the judge will examine the financial status of each parent, the relationship that each child has to each parent and his or her community, and what custodial situation would be in the best interest of each child. Based on this information, the judge will make a ruling on custody, visitation, and child support.

What Factors Can Influence a Custody Agreement Outcome?

The objective of the court is to create an arrangement that does not impact the child’s life in a negative manner and preserves his or her best interests. Courtrooms consider several elements of each child’s life before creating a custody arrangement for an unmarried couple.


  • The financial status of the parents. The court examines a parent’s income, assets, and financial history to determine if the child can receive proper care and support when living with that particular parent. In many situations, the higher-earning parent will also have to pay child support if he or she is sharing custody with the lower-income parent, or if the children live with the lower-income parent full-time.


  • Where each parent lives and the bond that the child has formed within the community. The court does not want to remove a child from a place where he or she has a strong attachment to friends, schools, and extracurricular activities.


  • The ability of each parent to treat his or her child with love and respect. The court does not want to give custody to parents who abuse, mistreat, or ignore their children. As a result, it will examine whether the parent will be able to provide a safe and stable home environment and determine visitation and custody accordingly.


If you are leaving your former partner and you have children together, it is important to retain an Indianapolis child custody attorney to help you navigate these complex child custody discussions. Entering the courtroom without representation can lead to an unfavorable outcome – and an attorney can advocate for your best interests each step of the way. Contact an Indiana family lawyer as soon as possible to assist you with your case.