California child custody laws apply differently to unmarried and married parents. However, unmarried parents are also granted many of the same legal rights as married parents.

Generally, the mother and father are treated separately in the family court. Ultimately, the court has to establish the best custody arrangement that will benefit the child, whether it involves one or both parents. Consulting with a divorce family lawyer can be beneficial to understanding the best outcomes for the children. 

But before you do, consult our list of steps before you hire a family law attorney.

What is Child Custody?

California child custody is a legal terminology referring to the rights of legal parents or guardians to have custody over the child. It entails the responsibility of bringing up the child in the best environment possible.

Child custody refers to the legal and practical relationship between a parent or guardian and a child, which includes the responsibility for the care, protection, and control of the child. The concept of child custody involves both legal and physical custody.

In simpler translation, it is most commonly referred to as custodial or legal responsibility for the child.

Legal responsibility for children encompasses the living arrangements, medical and educational decision making, health and safety matters, and protection from any form of abuse and exploitation.

Legal custody refers to the right to make important decisions about the child’s upbringing, such as decisions about education, religion, and medical treatment. Physical custody, on the other hand, refers to the right to have the child live with the custodial parent and the right to make day-to-day decisions regarding the child’s care.

In determining child custody, the court considers the best interests of the child. The factors the court considers include the child’s age, health, and emotional well-being, as well as the ability of each parent to provide for the child’s needs, including their ability to provide a stable home environment and their willingness to encourage a relationship between the child and the other parent.

Child custody can be awarded to one parent or both parents, and can be sole or joint custody. Sole custody means that one parent has both legal and physical custody of the child, while joint custody means that both parents share legal and/or physical custody of the child.

In cases where one parent is awarded sole custody, the other parent may still be granted visitation rights. Visitation rights allow the non-custodial parent to spend time with the child at specified times, such as on weekends, holidays, and school breaks.

The custody process involves the child’s physical and legal bond with the parent and the maintenance of those bonds. However, the goal of granting custody is to determine the environment ideal for the child’s future.

Overall, child custody is a complex legal issue that requires careful consideration of the child’s best interests and the circumstances of each parent.

child custody for unmarried parents

Child custody can have a happy ending for the children even if the parents are unmarried.

How Does Custody Work For Unmarried Parents?


Establishing Parental Rights for an unwed Mother is straight forward. The Birth Certificate is considered a conclusive presumption as to the identity of the Mother, and hence her parental rights are established. The unwed biological father does not automatically obtain Parentage Rights unless parentage is established in one of three ways: by fathers name being put on the birth certificate at time of birth; or if father signs a Declaration of Parentage.

Under these circumstances father may be presumed to be the “Father of the child” of deemed to have the equivalent of a Judgment of Paternity. Of course the biological father can petition the court to be declared Father of the Child, and thereafter pursue custodial rights. If parentage is not otherwise established for the biological father, he has no rights as a Parent until he obtains a Court Order establishing parentage.

Only after Parentage has been established may he pursue custodial rights.

However, the unwed mother has to be fit in the eyes of the court to be granted full custody.


The priority of the father— who is not married to the mother is to prove legal paternity. Without establishing being the child’s legal father, he won’t have legal rights to make arrangements with the mother regarding child custody. In a California, it’s wise to consult with a Los Angeles paternity attorney to learn the best ways to establish paternity.

Once paternity is established, the father shall earn the right to make legal arrangements with the mother regarding major decisions on the child’s wellbeing, especially when it comes to relocation. The father can also acquire legal rights to provide child support, request a visitation schedule, and other arrangements agreed between both parties and with the court’s approval.

What Happens in Paternity Court?

If unmarried parents decide to file a petition for child custody, the court will schedule a hearing for the case. The court will weigh the appeal of both parties before concluding.Child Custody of Unmarried Parents

A divorce family law attorney can be an important part of the process. In any case, a court-appointed legal representative will review the case and help determine if only one or both parents are more likely to be an effective custodial parent/s.

The court has to ensure the child’s welfare, notwithstanding the fact that mothers are expected to get automatic full custody. The court is entitled to authenticate if the mother has the capacity to take care of the child under legal requirements and perform parental responsibilities when given the custody.

Other Considerations

The court can also consider what a reasonable parent would do to handle a child custody dispute and determine which parent the child will be happiest with. The courts can award sole custody to one parent or award joint custody to both parents.

The court can also award temporary custody of a child if necessary during the custody and dispute process. As a general rule, the court will not award temporary custody unless it is likely the parent will have the child’s best interests at heart.

Child Custody For Unmarried Parents: The Different Types

If you’re battling over child custody, it is essential to note that it involves complex issues, which can be long and challenging to win. In most cases, the first step in establishing custody rights is to seek and present evidence that supports your cause. 

Sole Custody

If an unmarried parent seeks sole custody, you will need to prove that the other parent is unfit or will not consider the child’s best interest, and cannot provide adequate sheltering, medical, and educational resources.

It was stated above that the mother is granted full custody over the child. However, if the father can prove that she is legally unfit, the father gets the chance to win sole custody.

Joint Custody

If both parents seek joint custody, you will have to agree that you can offer support and discuss the terms of physical and legal custody responsibilities.

If you are awarded joint custody, both parents must abide by the custody agreement you have reached with the court. 

Legal Custody

Both parents can get legal custody over the child if they come to terms. That is if the mother who is granted full custody is willing to involve the father with established legal paternity. This mainly concerns making vital decisions on all aspects of the child’s life.

Physical Custody

When it comes to physical custody, the court’s legal system looks at several factors and issues. This includes determining if the child has a substantial connection with the parents and considering the parent’s commitment to the child. In most cases, the courts will award joint legal custody to both parents, meaning they jointly decide about the child’s daycare and have the same rights and responsibilities. Still, the courts will also consider what the parents have accomplished while together.

Child Support

Both parents, married or unmarried, are responsible for providing child support. Not unless either of the parents is bound by law not to perform any parental role to the child.

The amount of child support depends on the financial capacity of the parent. Both parties can create a legal agreement regarding the contribution, or the court can order the final percentage or amount of child support to be provided by both parents.

Even if one of the parents is unable to win custody, they may still have to provide child support.

Consult with a Family and Divorce Lawyer

If parents who are not married decide to separate, they should find an experienced divorce family law firm, preferably one who understand child custody laws in California. You may need answers to questions that require legal advice. Lawyers can help you decide what type of custody agreement is the right course of action for your situation.


About Family Divorce Family Lawyer, Leon F. Bennett, Esq

The Law Offices of Leon F. Bennett have been providing efficient and effective Family Law services throughout Southern California for over 35 years that satisfy you and your family’s goals. Leon F. Bennett, Esq. is an expert family law attorney in Woodland Hills, CA who will get the desired results for you and your family.

Contact us today to request a consultation.


People Also Ask

How is child custody determined in California?

In California, a child custody attorney in Los Angeles works with the parents to determine the best interests of the child. When making a custody determination, the court will consider a number of factors, including the child’s age, health, and relationship with each parent. The court will also consider which parent is more likely to provide a stable home environment and support the child’s relationship with the other parent. Additionally, the court may take into account any history of domestic violence or substance abuse. Ultimately, the goal is to make a custody determination that is in the best interests of the child and that will promote the child’s welfare.


What do judges look for in child custody cases?

Custody cases are some of the most difficult that family court judges have to deal with. In many cases, there is no easy answer, and the decision can have a profound impact on the lives of both children and parents. When making a custody determination, judges must consider a variety of factors, including the child’s age, the child’s relationship with each parent, the parents’ work schedules, and the child’s schooling. In addition, judges must often decide whether joint custody or sole custody is in the best interests of the child. The severity of any conflict between the parents is also taken into consideration. Ultimately, judges must make a decision based on what they believe is in the best interests of the child. This can be a difficult task, but it is one that judges take very seriously.


At what age can a child choose which parent to live with?

In the eyes of the law, children are generally considered to be minors who lack the capacity to make major life decisions. As a result, when it comes to matters like where to live or with whom to live, the courts typically defer to the parents or guardians. However, there are some circumstances in which a child may be allowed to choose which parent to live with. For example, if a child is 14 or older and is deemed to be mature enough to make an informed decision, the court may allow him or her to choose which parent to live with. Additionally, if both parents agree that it would be in the child’s best interest to live with one parent, the court will likely approve of this arrangement. Ultimately, the decision of at what age a child can choose which parent to live with rests with the court.