These days, there are many reasons why a couple might choose to start a family without getting married. No legal document can determine the love and affection between you, your partner and your children. However, unmarried parents can face unique challenges when it comes to child care and custody if they decide they no longer wish to live together. 

When a married couple has a child, the legal rights and responsibilities of parenthood come automatically to the mother and the father. Yet in North Carolina, the father is not automatically listed on the birth certificate if the parents are not married at the time of birth. 

That means that any father who would like to retain custody or visitation of his child after he and the mother separate has to establish legal parentage. Otherwise, the mother remains the sole legal parent of the child. Without a custody agreement that says otherwise, the mother has all the power to make decisions about the child’s health care, education, who the child sees and where the child lives. 

Establishing paternity at birth 

Though an unmarried father is not automatically listed on the birth certificate, you can request that your name appear there at birth. To do so, you must complete an affidavit acknowledging paternity that includes: 

  • A signed statement from the mother naming you as the father 
  • A signed statement from you that you believe you are the father 
  • A statement acknowledging the parental role and responsibilities 
  • Your Social Security number 

Your name then appears on the birth certificate and confers the legal rights of a father to you through the child’s life. 

Establishing paternity later 

If you and your former partner are already going through a discussion about separation, it is not too late to establish paternity. If the mother agrees to cooperate, you can complete the same affidavit acknowledging paternity. If the mother does not agree, you can petition the North Carolina family law court to establish paternity via a DNA test.