Much of the information on child custody and support focuses on parents who are getting divorced. But what if you were never married in the first place? What options do unmarried parents have?

The good news is that in Nebraska, parents are parents, regardless of their marital status. That means both parents have rights to seek custody, parenting time or child support. However, unlike divorcing parents, unmarried parents may need to jump through a few more legal hoops to establish these things.

Establishing paternity

One of the most common first steps for unmarried parents is paternity testing. When parents get divorced, the court presumes that both parents have custody rights to any children in the marriage. For unmarried parents, though, the child’s parentage may be questioned or denied.

To seek custody or child support orders, then, the court will need to confirm who the child’s biological parents are. This is done through the paternity process. Parents can voluntarily go through this process, or it will be ordered by the court in contested custody cases.

Establishing paternity allows unmarried parents to:

  • Make custody arrangements
  • Establish or assert parenting time rights
  • Seek child support on behalf of their children

Parents seek paternity for a variety of reasons, from wishing to see their kids more often to pursuing financial support in raising them. Whichever side of this equation you fall on, the paternity process can help you achieve your goals.

Legal vs. physical custody

Once paternity has been established (either voluntarily or involuntarily), the question often becomes one of custody. There are two types of custody in Nebraska:

  • Legal custody – This refers to a parent’s right to have a say a child’s health care, education, religious affiliation, and generally how they are raised.
  • Physical custody – This refers to where and with whom a child physically lives. Parents can share joint custody and parenting time equally, or use a more traditional model where one parent retains sole custody and the other has visitation rights determined by a parenting plan

Generally speaking, most parents share legal custody and then set up a parenting plan that works best for their children. In recent years, courts have tended to favor joint custody arrangements where parents have equitable parenting time with their children. This promotes strong parent-child relationships.

However, joint custody doesn’t work for every family, especially those where parents were never married in the first place. It’s possible one parent moved away or does not feel the need to be involved in their child’s life. Whatever the case, the court will determine what meets the best interests of the children before making a final determination on custody.