What Are the Legal Custody Rights of Unmarried Parents in Texas

Unmarried parents may have a difficult time seeking custody of their children after a separation. In Texas, as in many states, the laws around child custody have traditionally been centered around married couples. However, the reality is that many children are born to parents who are not married. This changing family dynamic sometimes confuses an unmarried parent’s legal rights and responsibilities regarding child custody.

Texas law aims to treat all parents equally, irrespective of their marital status. However, the legal process and considerations can differ for unmarried parents, particularly when asserting custody rights. 

Knowing your legal custody rights and parenting responsibilities is crucial. For unmarried parents in Texas, this knowledge can help you move through the custody process more smoothly. 

The First Step is to Establish Paternity

The first step for unmarried parents in Texas is establishing legal paternity. This step is crucial, as it forms the foundation for a father’s rights and responsibilities toward his child. Without legal paternity, an unmarried father may find it challenging to claim custody rights or to have a say in important decisions related to his child’s welfare. For mothers, establishing paternity is equally important as it pertains to seeking child support and formalizing custody arrangements.

There are two primary methods to establish paternity: the Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity (AOP) and through a court order.

  • Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity (AOP): This is the easiest method. It involves both parents agreeing to the paternity of the child and signing the AOP form. This form is often completed at the hospital when the child is born but can also be completed later. The AOP establishes legal paternity once signed and filed with the Texas Vital Statistics Unit. This process doesn’t require DNA testing because it is based on both parents’ agreement.
  • Establishing Paternity through Court Order: In cases of disagreement or doubt about paternity, either parent can seek a court order to establish paternity. This usually involves DNA testing. The court will evaluate the DNA test results and any other relevant evidence and, if paternity is established, will issue an order legally recognizing the father.

Understanding Custody and Conservatorship in Texas

In Texas family law, several terms are essential when discussing child custody arrangements, particularly ‘Conservatorship,’ ‘Joint Managing Conservatorship,’ and ‘Sole Managing Conservatorship.’ 

  • Conservatorship: This term is used in Texas instead of ‘custody.‘ Conservatorship refers to the legal rights and responsibilities of a parent. A conservator (parent) has the authority to make decisions regarding the child’s life, including decisions about education, medical care, and moral and religious upbringing.
  • Joint Managing Conservatorship (JMC): This is where both parents share the rights and responsibilities of raising the child. In a JMC, both parents may make decisions concerning the child’s welfare, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the child’s time is divided equally between the parents. One parent may still have the right to determine the child’s primary residence.
  • Sole Managing Conservatorship (SMC): In this arrangement, only one parent has the legal right to make certain decisions concerning the child. The parent granted SMC has exclusive rights to make major decisions about the child’s life. The other parent, the possessory conservator, may have visitation rights and limited decision-making capabilities.

Texas has a legal presumption in favor of Joint Managing Conservatorship. This means that the courts start with the assumption that it is in the best interest of the child for both parents to share conservatorship unless there is a reason to believe otherwise (such as evidence of domestic violence, child abuse, substance abuse, or other factors that might endanger the child).

Factors Influencing Custody Decisions

When determining custody arrangements in Texas, courts use a variety of criteria, all centered around the core principle of the “best interests of the child.” This standard is paramount in custody decisions. Here’s an outline of the factors influencing these decisions:

  • Physical and Emotional Needs of the Child
  • Each Parent’s Ability to Care for the Child
  • Stability of the Home Environment
  • Child’s Preferences
  • Parental Cooperation and Willingness to Support the Other Parent’s Relationship with the Child
  • Any History of Domestic Violence or Substance Abuse
  • Geographical Proximity of the Parents
  • Child’s Physical and Emotional Needs
  • Parents’ Employment Responsibilities
  • Any Other Factor the Court Deems Relevant

Texas courts want custody arrangements to support the overall well-being, safety, and happiness of the child above all else.

Contact Our Houston Child Custody Lawyers Today

If you have questions about your rights as an unmarried parent, we can help. Consult an experienced Houston divorce attorney at Moving Forward Divorce Lawyers. Call us at 713-589-4748 or fill out our confidential contact form to learn more about your legal options. We can work with you to help you untangle your lives and move forward into your future.



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The attorneys at Moving Forward Divorce Lawyers are highly experienced with Texas family law and can fight on your behalf for the things you want out of your divorce.

It’s always a good idea to consult with an experienced attorney when getting ready for, or going through a divorce. Filing the right paperwork and petitioning the court takes time, experience, and skill. If you make a mistake, you will lose money and valuable time. This could impact your future significantly. Call us at 713-589-4748 or fill out our confidential contact form to schedule a free consultation and learn more about your legal options.

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