Question: I am an unwed father concerned about my rights as a parent. Two months after leaving me, my ex-girlfriend, who lived with me for four years, has informed me that she is three months pregnant. In spite of the fact that we had an ugly break, I will always love her on some level, and I told her that I want to help her and the baby in any way I can. However, she says that she doesn’t “need” me and that she doesn’t want her baby to have a father or to rely on anyone other than her. I don’t get that one at all. Being an unwed father wasn’t my plan, and I didn’t expect my ex to be against my rights as a parent. She basically left my place and moved in with her sister, so it’s not like she’s independent financially. Plus I found out that she’s started dating recently and is seeing MORE THAN ONE GUY (I bet they’re going to love hearing about her little surprise—as far as I know these dates are alcohol-free, but the whole situation is really rubbing me the wrong way).
The thing is, I don’t want my kid growing up thinking someone ELSE is their father. Even if I am an unwed father, I believe I deserve rights as a parent. I invested serious time in the relationship that produced this child, broken as it is, and I want to be able to support and teach my child MY values (like that relationships need work from BOTH parents to survive). However, my ex tells me that she is totally not interested in having me involved in my kid’s life whatsoever, and that I can never visit or anything. This seems wrong to me. I asked my cousin who is a single dad about this, and he said that unless the mother lets an unwed father sign the birth certificate, he can kiss his rights as a parent goodbye. Is this true? I live in Illinois, by the way.
Answer: No, it is absolutely not true that unmarried dads do not have fathers’ rights in Illinois. You have the right to ask the court to establish your legal rights to sole custody or joint custody.
However, first and foremost you should enroll in the Illinois Putative Father Registry. Submitting your information to this registry will hopefully prevent your ex-girlfriend from putting your child up for adoption by giving you notice and the opportunity to object. Normally paternity for an unwed father is established when the father and mother sign a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity (V.A.P.). Do not sign one without reading it carefully and getting advice from a custody attorney for fathers because signing a V.A.P. without a DNA test may make you the father of a child that is not yours.
However, since your ex-girlfriend is not likely to allow even a V.A.P., your lawyer will have to establish fathers’ rights through a parentage action in court. DNA tests and other evidence proving you are the father of the child may be necessary for your paternity to be established. An unwed father who has won a parentage action, establishing himself as the legal father of the child in question, has same rights as any other dad under the law, including the right to seek joint or sole custody.
I co-wrote the Illinois joint custody law, which gives fathers the right to remain involved in their children’s lives. If you become the child’s legally recognized father, there are several options that the fathers’ rights I fought to include in the law offer to you: a joint legal custody arrangement (in which both you and the mother share major decision-making powers with regards to the child), and a joint physical custody arrangement (in which each parent spends significant time with the child). You also have the right to pursue sole custody (in which the child resides solely with you and major deicisons regarding the child are made by you, the unwed father. You have rights, and with proper zealous legal representation, no one should be able to take away your rights to be a parent to your own child.