North Carolina fathers who are not married to the mothers of their children and who want legal custody or visitation rights may have to begin by establishing paternity. If there is not a dispute about paternity, the parents can do this by signing an affidavit of parentage. If there is a dispute, however,, a paternity test may be necessary.

Parents may agree on custody or visitation and then file a plan with the court in order to create a legally binding document. This might also include a parenting plan that deals with a variety of issues including the child’s religious upbringing, health care and education. The parenting plan should also have a procedure for dealing with changes and conflicts. If parents cannot negotiate agreements, then there may be a contested hearing requested by either parent.

Courts make decisions regarding child welfare with the best interests of the child in mind and the presumption that children benefit from having contact with both parents. However, a parent who can demonstrate that there is domestic violence, drug problems or other issues may be able to limit or prevent the other parent’s access to the child. It would be rare for an unmarried father to get sole custody unless he is already the primary caregiver or the mother is demonstrably unfit.

An unmarried father who is concerned about access to his child may want to initiate legal proceedings even if he has a cordial relationship with the child’s mother. A legal process helps protect that access if circumstances change. Under the presumption that children should spend time with both parents, such a process also protects the child. An attorney may be able to assist a father in this process and in negotiating a parenting agreement if necessary.