Do Unmarried Fathers Have Custody Rights in Florida?
In Florida, the question of whether or not unmarried Fathers have rights is complicated. First, if there is no prior court order governing timesharing or child support, Florida Statute 744.301 will apply. That statute states that:
"The mother of a child born out of wedlock is the natural guardian of the child and is entitled to primary residential care and custody of the child unless a court of competent jurisdiction enters an order stating otherwise."
This means that if the parties cannot agree upon timesharing, the Mother is entitled to determine timesharing (note: timesharing is the technical term for "custody" in Florida.) This essentially puts the Father at the mercy of the Mother when it comes to when and where he will see his children.
While the Father may not be able to enforce his rights at this time, if he is on the birth certificate he still is legally considered the Father and the Mother should still, in theory, be giving him some timesharing, as there is a presumption in Florida that it is in the best interest of the children that both parents be involved in their lives. Thus, an unmarried Father who is on the birth certificate technically has "rights" to the children, although he is most likely not able to enforce those rights.
What Options Do Fathers Have to Enforce Their Rights?
However, if the Father files a "Petition to Establish Paternity", he may request that the Court create a parenting plan to govern when and where both parties. In the vast majority of cases, the Father will be awarded timesharing as well as "shared parental responsibility", meaning he has equal rights to access the child's records and determine major decisions in the child's life (educational, medical, etc.) regardless of who has more timesharing.
Most Fathers who live within a reasonable distance of the Mother will fight for equal (also known as 50/50) timesharing. This gives the Father significant timesharing and will reduce the child support burden he may be facing, since Florida's Child Support Guidelines take into consideration the amount of overnight visits both parents have during the year.
What is the Next Step?
If a Father is seeking to enforce his rights, he needs to file a Petition to Establish Paternity and Related Relief. This will be a request to the Court to establish his rights formally and will give the Father the relief he is seeking. An unmarried Father should consult an experienced attorney who handles cases of this nature to ensure he gets the amount of timesharing he is seeking.