There’s a common story amongst unmarried dads that I hear. A child is born and the unmarried parents work well together for a period of time, until things deteriorate. Then the dad is left calling me wondering what to do, stating that all he has done is sign a Recognition of Parentage. Some dads think a Recognition of Parentage is everything they need. To be blunt, it is far from what you need. See my blog post here about the differences between a Recognition of Parentage and a Custody and Parenting Time Order.
If there’s a breakdown in the relationship between mom and dad, the truth about Minnesota custody law is that the mother retains all rights in the child until a Court says otherwise. This means parenting time and custody decisions all fall to mom and the dad has no say due to a legal technicality regardless of the dad’s involvement leading up to the erosion of the parties’ relationship. So where does this leave dads? Often scrambling to get a paternity action started in Minnesota.
Benefits of Getting a Court Order Sooner Rather Than Later
Easier to Agree and (Court Ordered) Agreements Are a Good Thing
If you are at an amicable point in your relationship, it makes reaching an agreement easier and getting those agreements into a Court Order is a good thing. Even if the unmarried parents are living together, you can still get a Court Order establishing custody and providing an Order for parenting time.
Custody is used to establish who has a say in the child’s life. For example, “joint legal custody” would provide both parents the right to make decisions regarding the child’s upbringing (e.g., school, religion, and medical decisions). Custody designations (legal and physical) are extremely difficult to change once they are Court Ordered. So much so that I often tell clients that custody designations are practically set in stone after they are initially allocated in a Court Order. Custody designations are also hotly contested, making even more sense to get an agreement when the relationship is peaceful.
If the parents are living together and it does not make sense to create a parenting time schedule, parenting time can be reduced to an agreement about how the parents will approach parenting time if they ever split up (e.g., parties agree to establish a 50/50 parenting time schedule in the event they are not living together). Such parenting time agreements can give a future Court a strong indication on how to rule in regards to parenting time.
Court Orders also provide the baseline for what parenting time should be. It is not uncommon for the parties to agree to a parenting time schedule that is solidified in a Court Order and then naturally transition to a different parenting time schedule. If this is the case and the relationship goes sour, the Court Order will ultimately provide the minimum amount of parenting time that each party should have with the minor child(ren). If one parent deprives the other parent of Court Ordered parenting time, the depriving parent would be in direct violation of the Court Order.
Child Support Arrears
In a paternity action, Minnesota law allows the Court to award up to two (2) years in back child support prior to the date the paternity action was filed. In a nutshell, this could mean that you owe thousands of dollars in back child support (arrears). Starting a paternity action sooner rather than later can help protect you against owing so much in arrears, assuming the Court approaches child support in the paternity action.
Most dads tell me that they did not want to start a paternity action because they were afraid of the child support payments. That logic does not entirely help you in this case. You could still be caught paying up two (2) years worth of arrears plus an ongoing child support award.
Relationships can fail even if approached with the greatest amount of optimism. It’s a fact of life. Establishing paternity, custody and/or parenting time at the outset of a child’s birth can help you construct a safety net when the matter is approached with legal guidance. You may never have to rely on that safety net, but at least you will know it is there.