When an unmarried couple have a child together, both parents have the right to play a role in raising the child and a duty to provide emotional and financial support. However, they need to establish legal paternity so that the father can qualify for custody or visitation and the court can create and enforce a child support order.

Follow these steps to protect your parental rights with a custody order in Pennsylvania.

Voluntary acknowledgment of paternity

If you and the child’s other parent agree on paternity, you can sign the state’s Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity form before at least one witness who is older than age 18. Many parents sign this form after the birth of their child at the hospital. Otherwise, you can obtain this form from your local county court and sign it any time before the child’s 18th birthday. Submit the signed form to the Department of Human Services.

Involuntary paternity

If either parent does not agree on paternity, he or she can ask the court to determine paternity by filing the Petition to Determine Paternity. The mother can also request this service through DHS. The court will require genetic testing to establish a legal father.

Claiming parental rights

After the court establishes legal paternity, the clerk will add the father’s name to the birth certificate. The legal father can petition the court for custody and parenting time. Either parent can request child support services through DHS, and the agency will create a support order based on Pennsylvania guidelines. The court determines support and custody separately, which means failure to pay support does not impact visitation and failure to visit does not impact the responsibility to pay support.

Establishing a legal father may also provide the child with access to certain benefits, such as health insurance, military benefits and life insurance. Social Security benefits also fall into this category. State law presumes that it is in the child’s best interest to have a relationship with both parents.