Yes, in principle. Assuming you are the biological father, you have the natural right to parent your child as long as you are not unfit to do so. However, you will need to go to court to establish your rights as a father if you were unmarried at the time of your child’s birth.
What kinds of fathers’ rights do I have?
Like all parents in Arizona, your parental rights are described as “legal decision-making authority” and “parenting time.”
Legal decision-making authority (which used to be called “legal custody”) is your authority as a parent to make major decisions about your child’s care and welfare. For example, this authority allows you to make decisions about your child’s education, medical care and religious instruction.
During a paternity proceeding, the court will usually grant you joint legal decision-making authority with the child’s mother. This means the two of you have an equal right to make these decisions and you should generally come to agreement on these issues.
Less commonly, a court may determine that it is not in the best interest of the children for one of the parents to have full legal decision-making authority. This is generally due to that parent’s unfitness. In such a case, the court would grant sole legal decision-making authority to the other parent alone.
Parenting time is the time you spend caring for your child. (This used to be called “physical custody.”) In most cases, courts will award approximately equal amounts of parenting time to each parent. This is because Arizona’s parenting plan statute calls for courts to maximize each parent’s parenting time.
In some cases, the court may decide it is not in the child’s best interest to have unsupervised parenting time with one of the parents. This would be due to unfitness. The court might decide to reduce that parent’s time with the children or require that the time be supervised by another trustworthy person.
Can the court award legal decision-making authority or parenting time based on gender?
Many men fear that the courts are inherently biased against fathers’ rights. There was a long period in U.S. history in which many courts assumed that children’s interest was best served by having the mother be their primary caregiver.
Bias against fathers may still occur, but Arizona’s parenting plan statute specifically states that “the court shall not prefer a parent’s proposed plan because of the parent’s or child’s gender.”
Is an acknowledgement of paternity enough to establish my rights?
No. You may have signed an acknowledgement of paternity at the time of your child’s birth. This is not enough to protect your rights as a father. If you want legal decision-making authority and parenting time, you should file a paternity action.
When you file a paternity action, the issues of legal decision-making authority and parenting time come before the court. You and your ex-girlfriend will be asked to come to agreement on these issues. If you are unable to come to agreement, the court will have to decide.
As a father, your parenting rights are crucial to your ability to parent. Protect them by seeking an order of paternity. An experienced family law attorney can help.