What You Need to Know About Florida Child Custody Laws for Unmarried Parents

Florida’s child custody laws for unmarried parents can be complicated. Here’s everything you need to know about Florida child custody laws for unmarried parents.

In Florida, mothers automatically obtain parental rights at the child’s birth. A father may take a DNA test to establish paternity and get parental rights to the child. If the child’s parents are both legally established, unmarried parents undergo the same procedures as divorced parents to obtain custody, visitation rights, and child support.

Child Custody Laws in Florida

Florida requires separating parents to resolve child custody disputes with a mediator, a judge in the trial, or without any assistance. The judge will examine any custody agreement to protect the child’s best interests regardless of the parents’ method for separation.

Unlike other states, Florida does not often use the term “custody.” Florida’s statutes do not contain a primary or secondary parent designation. Florida refers to custody arrangements as “time-sharing” and requires parents to follow a time-sharing schedule in the child’s best interests. The time-sharing agreement establishes the parents’ visitation and custody agreement. “Majority time-sharing” may resemble sole or primary custody, while “equal time-sharing” can refer to joint custody.

Parental responsibility authorizes a parent to make major medical, educational, religious, or legal decisions for a child. Florida courts favor shared parental responsibility but can award one parent sole decision-making rights if a joint agreement is detrimental to the child’s welfare. The parent with majority time-sharing possesses the final say on vital child decisions when the spouses cannot agree.    

Related: How Mental Health Issues Affect Child Custody in California

Child Custody Laws in Florida for Unmarried Parents

Florida recognizes a mother as the natural guardian for a child born out of wedlock. The mother automatically gains legal custody of the child even though she is unwed. The father has no rights to the child, even if named on the child’s birth certificate. The mother can allow the father visitation rights if she desires, but only a court order may require the father’s visitation. 

The father must establish paternity to gain any parental rights or custody. A parent who seeks to establish paternity should file a Petition to Determine Paternity. Once the court obtains the order, the father may need DNA testing. If paternity is confirmed, the legal father may exercise parental rights and petition for child custody. The legal father should submit a parenting plan and proof of paternity to the court. If the child’s parents are both legally established, unmarried parents undergo the same procedures as divorced parents to obtain custody, visitation rights, and child support. The legal mother and father may reach a time-sharing agreement to split time with the child in some capacity. Time-sharing agreement terms can vary depending on the child’s best interests and other factors applicable to the case.

Child Custody Violations for Unmarried Parents in Florida

The court handles legal, unmarried parent violations of child custody identically to divorced parents. The court may attempt to determine if the circumstances responsible for child custody violation were intentional, unavoidable, or in the child’s best interests. 

The court can issue any of the following penalties for finding one parent in contempt of court for violating a court order:

  • Additional time-sharing with the child and the petitioning parent to compensate for denied time,
  • Mandated parenting classes for the non-compliant parent,
  • Modification of the current parent plan,
  • Holding the non-compliant parent in contempt of court and/or
  • Jail time for the non-compliant parent if found in contempt of court. 

Related: Florida Child Custody FAQs

Child Support for Unmarried Parents in Florida

A parent with majority time-sharing may file for child support from the other legal parent. The method to determine child support for unmarried parents is the same as for divorced parents. Parents should consult Florida’s Child Support Guidelines Worksheet to determine how much child support to contribute monthly. A parent who fails to pay child support on time and/or in full may face severe consequences from the court. 

A parent who fails to pay child support may suffer any of the following:

  • Fines,
  • Bank account seizure,
  • Income tax refund seizure,
  • Driver’s license or vehicle registration suspension, and/or
  • Jail or prison time.

However, a father without established paternity in Florida is not required to pay child support.

What if the father or other individual attempts to take the child?

An unmarried mother with no established court order or paternity test possesses sole parenting rights of a child. No individual may take the child from the mother without legally established paternity and a court order. Florida charges anyone attempting to take the child without a court order of committing “interference with custody.” The mother should call local law enforcement on any individual trying to take the child. 

If the father or another individual has already taken the child, file a report with the police immediately. The mother can also call the Department of Children and Families for assistance. A situation may occur in which an individual refuses to return the child upon being located. The mother should file an action in Family Court asking for the child’s return if the individual refuses.

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If you or a loved one would like to learn more about Florida child custody laws for unmarried parents, get your free consultation with one of our child custody attorneys today!