What Unmarried Fathers Have to Worry About

Clare Huntington in New York Times, June 13, 2014

Media Source

The fathers’ rights movement contends that the treatment of fathers and mothers is unequal under the law, but the real difference is between married and unmarried fathers.

My research shows that family law makes it much harder for unmarried fathers to sustain a relationship with their children. In most states, if a child is born to married parents, the mother’s husband is automatically established as the legal father. By contrast, unmarried fathers have to take additional steps to establish parentage. Further, the custody of a child born to married parents who are living together is not an issue. But half of unmarried fathers do not live with their children at birth. Often, these fathers must go to court to establish custody, but most simply cannot afford to.

Absent a custody order, mothers decide whether fathers can see their children. Some mothers keep fathers away for understandable reasons, such as domestic violence. But other mothers keep fathers away for less sympathetic reasons, such as wanting to protect a relationship with a new boyfriend.

Imperfect as they may be, courts do help divorcing couples establish co-parenting expectations. But unmarried couples do not need the court to end their relationship and without clearly established rights and responsibilities, everything becomes a fight.

Finally, child support laws are a real problem for unmarried fathers. Due to low rates of educational attainment and high rates of incarceration, many unmarried fathers are unable to support their children economically. And yet child support laws often impose unrealistic obligations that can accrue even when a father is in prison. The situation is a double bind for both the mothers, who resent the inability of fathers to pay what the law leads them to expect, and the fathers who resent the mounting debt.

Feminists and members of the fathers’ rights movement alike should focus on the legal and societal inequities faced by unmarried fathers in order to help all families.


Clare Huntington is a professor at Fordham Law School and the author of Failure to Flourish: How Law Undermines Family Relationships.


Contact: Clare Huntington
Email: chuntington@law.fordham.edu