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For unmarried parents involved in a custody dispute, the process is largely the same as for married couples. If unmarried parents do not reach a child custody and visitation agreement out-of-court, the matter will go before a family court judge for resolution.  In deciding custody between unmarried parents, the court will often give considerable weight to the parent identified as the primary caretaker.

When a child’s parents are unmarried, the statutes of most states require that the mother be awarded sole physical custody unless the father takes action to be awarded custody. An unwed father often cannot win custody over a mother who is a good parent, but he can take steps to secure some form of custody and visitation rights.

In some cases, people other than a child’s parents may wish to obtain custody — including relatives like grandparents, aunts, uncles, and close family friends. Some states label such a situation as “non-parental” or “third-party” custody, and may refer to the third-party’s goal in these situations as obtaining “guardianship” of the child, rather than custody.

Whatever the label, most states have specific procedures that must be followed by people seeking non-parental custody. The process usually begins when the person seeking custody files a document called a “non-parental custody petition” (or similarly-titled petition) with the court, which sets out the person’s relationship to the child, the status of the child’s parents (living, dead, whereabouts unknown), and the reasons the person is seeking (and should be granted) custody. Usually, a copy of this petition must also be delivered to the child’s parents, if they are living and their whereabouts are known.

Maryland

Maryland custody law for unmarried parents operate the same as those for married couples with children, EXCEPT that paternity must be established before the case moves forward.

In a 2016 case, the Maryland Court of Appeals approved parental rights for “non-parental” parents. The higher court ruled that “de facto” parents can also seek custody and visitation. De facto parents can be:

  • The partner of a lesbian who undergoes artificial insemination.
  • A gay man whose partner adopts a child from a country that does not allow same-sex couples to jointly adopt.
  • A man that raises a child with a woman for years without formal adoption.

Maryland currently allows two female partners to be identified as parents on a birth certificate. The state does not currently extend the same right to two men.

To consult with a member of our Family Law Team about an issue related to Unmarried Couples in Maryland, contact us.

District of Columbia

District of Columbia law permits domestic partners to adopt and requires that the children of unmarried couples be treated the same for custody and support purposes as the children of married parents.

The D.C. Domestic Partnership Equality Amendment Act of 2006 created important property and support rights for eligible couples who register as domestic partners. These rights are similar to the property and support rights that married persons have.

The Act provides for:

  • inheritance rights similar to those held by a surviving spouse, including the right to an elective share of a deceased partner’s estate (so that a domestic partner cannot completely disinherit his or her surviving partner),
  • equitable division of partnership property if a partner dissolves the partnership,
  • support (alimony) for a former partner, if appropriate, under the same rules applicable to divorcing spouses, and
  • the right to enter into a premarital agreement.

To register as domestic partners, parties must:

  • be in a committed relationship and share a residence,
  • both be at least 18 years old and competent to enter into a legal contract,
  • be the sole domestic partner of the other, and
  • neither party can be married to or registered as a domestic partner with anyone else.

D.C. law permits domestic partners to adopt and requires that the children of unmarried couples be treated the same for custody and support purposes as the children of married parents.

Upon the death of one partner, the surviving partner is entitled to a specific share of the estate.  That percentage depends on whether the deceased partner dies without a will and whether the deceased partner has surviving children, granD.C.hildren or parents.

If a partner dies with a will, and the will leaves a bequest to the surviving partner, the surviving partner can renounce the bequest and elect instead to take his or her statutory share of the decedent’s assets.

Domestic partners may terminate their partnership by jointly filing a termination statement with the Mayor of the District of Columbia. The Act provides that the termination is effective six months after the filing of the termination statement.

To consult with a member of our Family Law Team about issues related to Unmarried Couples in the District of Columbia, contact us.

Virginia

Virginia law typically treats child custody for unmarried parents the same as married parents, making determinations based on the best interests of the child. 

In Virginia, no duties arise between unmarried individuals who are living together, unless by an express agreement, either informal or written. Those agreements are enforced using the principles of contract law.

Virginia courts view issues related to spousal support between unmarried couples differently than married couples, and may modify, terminate or refuse to grant spousal support in such cases. Marriage legally secures spousal obligations and support.

To consult with a member of our Family Law Team about issues related to Unmarried Couples in Virginia, contact us.