Paternity's relationship to child custody in California

Some Californians might assume that most child custody disputes related to paternity revolve around determining a child's biological father. However, even in cases where both parents know who a child's biological father is, paternity still needs to be legally established for the father to pursue child custody or visitation.

When a California married couple has a child, the law presumes that the husband is the child's biological father. But, if parents are not married when the child is born or when the woman becomes pregnant, the child technically does not have a legal father per California law. This is true, even if both parents know who the biological father is and agree on that fact. Thus, the biological father will need to take the step of establishing paternity to have the state recognize his parental rights.

Paternity can be established in two ways: by signing a Declaration of Paternity form or obtaining an order from the court. Establishing paternity in either manner means that a child's biological father can exercise his rights and responsibilities towards the child. In addition, it means the child can have the security of knowing his or her parentage.

What is paternity's role in relationship to child custody? If unmarried parents break up and the biological father has not established paternity, that man may have no claim to custody or visitation. Moreover, a custody dispute may arise if a father -- who does not know he must establish paternity -- tries to obtain custody and does not know how. While custody decisions are made in the best interests of the child, a father cannot even pursue custody until parentage has been established. It is helpful to know that a father may request custody, visitation or child support as part of a case in which paternity is being established.