These days, fewer and fewer couples choose to marry before having children. The most recent United States Census revealed that nearly 40% of all births in the United States occur to unmarried women. In some cases, unmarried couples choose to stay with one another, but in many others—25% of all children in 2020—the child resides with only one parent. In the vast majority of these cases, that parent is the mother.

When it comes to unwed parents and single-parent households, Illinois is consistent with the national average, with more than 36% of all births in a recent year occurring to parents who chose not to marry. While many people assume these statistics mean that many Illinois men aren’t interested in fatherhood, this isn’t always the case. Many unmarried fathers wish to maintain a vital role in their children’s lives but remain unaware of the legal considerations necessary to ensure their parental rights.

What Custody Rights Do Unwed Fathers Have in Illinois?

Many unwed Illinois fathers incorrectly assume that upon the baby’s birth, they will receive parental rights in the same manner as the mother. Unfortunately, that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. While biological mothers automatically receive the determination of motherhood—along with all the legal parental rights and responsibilities that come with it—at the moment of birth, unwed biological fathers are not automatically awarded fatherhood.

Unwed biological fathers hold no parental rights to a child unless they take further action to establish them. Unfortunately, doing so can be fairly complicated, especially as time elapses after the baby’s birth. In most cases, unwed men wishing to hold parental rights should begin by seeking the assistance of a Bloomington family law attorney, who can help disambiguate the necessary steps to establish paternity and other documentation like a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage.

VAP Documents Do Not Award Illinois Paternity

After a baby is born out of wedlock in the state of Illinois, both parents have the right to access and sign a document known as a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage, or VAP, before discharge from the hospital. Many parents assume this document gives both parents full legal parental rights to the child. However, parental rights are not the purpose of the VAP.

Instead, the VAP exists to establish a basis for financial child support from any individual claiming parenthood and does not establish any parental rights or award physical custody or visitation. In fact, with a signed VAP, an unwed father in Illinois who has not established paternity is liable for child support without holding any rights to make parental decisions or even request visitation to see his child.

Establishing Paternity in Illinois

It is essential for unmarried fathers in Illinois to establish paternity as soon as possible after the child’s birth. Until paternity is official, the child’s mother will hold sole legal and physical custody. Typically, Illinois legal paternity is established in one of three ways:

  • If the parents were married at the time of conception, the man is considered the child’s legal father, even if the couple divorces before the child’s birth.
  • Birth certificate. If the mother obtains written, legal permission from the father to name him as the child’s biological father on the birth certificate and does so, the father has established legal paternity.
  • Court order. If the mother refuses to establish legal paternity, the father may file a paternity action through Illinois courts to request genetic testing to establish him as the father.

After legal paternity is complete, unwed fathers can file court actions to request visitation, physical custody, and legal custody. Depending on the child’s best interests, the courts will then consider the father’s parental rights along with the mother’s.

What Should You Do If You Are an Unwed Father in Illinois?

If you are an unwed father in Illinois, it is crucial to establish paternity as soon as possible utilizing one of the above three methods. In addition, take the time to register with the Illinois Putative Fathers registry to ensure you are notified if the child’s mother decides to place the child for adoption or pursues other similar avenues. After you have established paternity, you will likely need to file a court action to pursue your parental rights.

Even when the child’s mother chooses not to challenge your parental rights, the process necessary to advocate for your desired parenting time and legal rights can be long and arduous. For that reason, a natural first step when seeking paternity, physical custody, visitation, or legal custody is to consult an experienced Bloomington child custody attorney. For insight regarding your unique case, contact Stange Law Firm at (855) 055-0595 or request a consultation online.