California custody and child support laws apply differently to married and unmarried parents. While married parents generally have more legal rights, unmarried parents are also granted many of the same legal rights. The standard practice of California custody law and the court’s eyes deems that the mother and father are separate parties. Ultimately, the court’s responsibility is to determine what custody arrangement will be best for the child and whether it will involve both parents or only one.

What is Child Custody?

Child Custody is the legal term used to refer to the rights of legal parents or guardians to have custody of their child(ren). Child custody comes with the assumed responsibility of caring for and raising the child(ren) in the best environment possible. Child custody is most commonly known as the parent’s rights to the custodial or legal responsibility for the child. The legal responsibilities of having custody of a child include providing safe living situations, the burden of making medical and education-related decisions, and providing the child(ren) with general protection from unsafe and abusive conditions. The legal custody process refers to reviewing a child’s current legal and physical custody arrangement and how the arrangement is being cared for. As a whole, it is the goal of the court system to ensure that custody arrangements are protecting the best interest of the child in question.

Unmarried Parents Child Custody Rights and Issues

The biggest issue facing unmarried parents seeking a custody arrangement is the issue of paternity. California family law automatically grants custody of the child to the mother if the child’s parents are unmarried. Therefore, the unmarried father of a child has no automatic legal right to custody of their child. The unique individual circumstances surrounding the mother, the father, and the courts play a significant role in determining custody between unmarried parents.


Because California law automatically grants custody to the child’s mother, there is no need for legal action regarding custody on behalf of the mother. This means that the mother is given the legal ability to determine the father’s role in a child’s life. In these circumstances, the unmarried mother will have the full legal responsibility of caring for the child’s entire well-being.


For unmarried fathers seeking custody of their child, their number one priority is to prove their legal paternity. If the father cannot establish their legal paternity, he will not have any legal rights relating to child custody arrangements. Without proof of legal paternity, all child custody matters will remain the responsibility of the child’s mother. Once the father has established legal paternity, he shall have the right to share the responsibility of making legal arrangements with their child’s mother regarding decisions affecting the child’s wellbeing and any possible instances of physical relocation. Having established paternity, the father may also gain the legal rights to provide child support, request visitation rights, and other agreed-upon arrangements that the court has approved.


When unmarried parents decide to file a petition for child custody, the court’s standard process is to schedule a hearing for the case. At the hearing, the court will weigh the appeal of both parties before making their decision. Standard practice includes the court-appointed legal representative reviewing the case to help determine whether one or both parents having custody of their child is the best custodial arrangement. It is the courts’ responsibility to ensure that the child’s welfare and best interests are protected. Despite the child’s custody being granted to their mother, the court has the right to confirm the mother’s ability to fulfill their custodial duties. When deciding a child custody case, the court may award sole legal custody, joint legal custody, or temporary custody of a child.

Unmarried Parents Rights and Responsibilities

After your custody hearing, the court will consider all the information presented in making their decision. Most often, the courts will assign either sole legal custody or joint legal custody of the child.

Sole Legal Custody

If the court awards one parent sole legal custody of their child(ren), then they have most likely found the other parent to be an unfit caretaker. An unfit guardian means that the evidence before has most likely indicated that this parent cannot provide adequate shelter, medical, or educational necessities. California law defines sole legal custody as legally giving one parent the right to make all major decisions relating to their child’s health, well-being, and education(ren), without needing the other parent’s input.

While California law automatically grants custody of a child to the unmarried mother, if the unmarried father can prove that the child’s mother is an unfit guardian, they may win sole legal custody of their child.

Joint Legal Custody

When a court awards joint legal custody, unmarried parents must agree on the support they can offer their child and how they will split legal and physical custody. Joint legal custody occurs when unmarried parents split the responsibilities of having legal and physical custody of their child.

Legal and Physical Custody

If both unmarried parents can come to a custody agreement, they can share legal custody of their child. Legal custody is the legal responsibility and right of a parent(s) to make vital life decisions for their child. If the child’s mother is automatically granted custody and is willing to involve the unmarried father, legal action may not be necessary.

The courts will determine physical custody based on a variety of factors. Determining physical custody includes establishing whether or not the child has a significant connection with their parent(s) and whether the parent(s) has the necessary commitment to the child. When joint-custody of the child is awarded, unmarried parents have the same rights to making life decisions about their child.

Child Support

Regardless of their marital status, all parents are required to pay child support. The only exception to this rule applies to parents who have had all legal rights to their child terminated. Establishing the amount of child support each unmarried parent will pay depends on various factors and is determined on a case-by-case basis. The amount tends to be based on parents’ financial ability. Unmarried parents can come to an agreement in court regarding the amount that each parent is obligated to pay. Child support is not determined by a parent’s custody rights. Therefore, even if a parent does not have custody of their child, they may still be responsible for child support.

Contact Pride Legal

If you or a loved one has more questions on custody matters, we invite you to contact us at Pride Legal for legal counseling or any further inquiries. To protect your rights, hire someone who understands them.