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Recent case highlights child custody issues of unmarried fathers

A recent case from another state (North Carolina) shines a national spotlight on a very important child custody issue that also impacts families here in New Jersey: the limited rights available to an unmarried biological father whose paternity hasn't been formally established.

The case involves a biological father whose child was put up for adoption prior to his learning about the child's existence. In this unique case, the biological father and mother had a relationship that spanned more than a year. The two never married and never cohabited. They did not regularly use birth control and had gone through one pregnancy which was terminated by mutual agreement of both parties.

After the couple had broken up, the mother gave birth to a baby boy (in October of 2010). The child was put up for adoption a few days after his birth, but the biological father wasn't made aware of the child until about six months later. It turns out that the child's mother left the father's name off the boy's birth certificate and purposely misspelled it on the Affidavit of Parentage required for the adoption.

Upon learning about the birth, the father tried to have the adoption overturned and sought child custody, but his request was denied. Appeals resulted in the case being heard by the North Carolina Supreme Court, who declined to upset the adoption, essentially saying that the biological father has no rights to the child. The majority opinion seemed to place blame on the father for not using birth control while in a relationship with the child's mother and for not inquiring if she had become pregnant again (since she had previously). Only in the dissenting opinion were the actions of the child's mother (including her concerted effort to conceal both her pregnancy and the decision to place the child for adoption from the boy's father) addressed.

Ultimately, the Court made the decision to leave the child with the only family he has ever known, his adoptive family. With such unique facts, the case could have gone either way. There is no way of knowing if this case will have any impact outside North Carolina, but it is intriguing to see how courts around the country handle the "gray" area of parental rights of an unmarried man whose paternity was never established.

Source: News & Record, "Court doesn't upset adoption for biological father," Doug Clark, June 12, 2014.

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