Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

July 23,  2007  



Unmarried father's rights protected in Florida

By Thomas F. Coleman

The Florida Supreme Court issued a ruling last week expanding the rights of unmarried men who believe they are the fathers of children born outside of wedlock.  As a result, a man believed to be the father of a child must be notified before an unmarried mother can place a newborn child for adoption.

The case involved a 30 year old man, known as J.A. in court papers who filed suit to restore his parental rights for Baby H., a boy who was born on August 5, 2005. 

J.A. learned about the boy three months before he was born and filed a paternity suit the day after Baby H. was born.  The mother placed the child up for adoption the next day.

The mother claimed that J.A. had no right to claim paternity since he had not first filed a paternity claim with the state's Putative Father Registry.  J.A. explained that he had not filed with the registry because he was not aware that it existed.

A trial court ruled against J.A., finding that his failure to file with the registry was fatal to his claim of parenthood.  J.A. appealed and the Court of Appeal reversed that ruling.

The case landed in the Florida Supreme Court when the Court of Appeal requested the court to take the case as a matter of great public importance.

The Supreme Court sided with the father and concluded that an unmarried man who is the potential father of a child born out of wedlock must be given notice of his duty to register with the Putative Father Registry before his rights may be terminated.  This is premised on the ability to locate the potential father.

The father's lawyer had argued to the court that very few unmarried men are aware of the registry, citing statistics from 2004 when only 47 men registered although 90,000 children were born to unmarried mothers that year.

The agency which had placed Baby H. for adoption urged the court to strictly interpret the registration statute and make men register or lose their rights.

Realizing the potential absurdity of the agency's position, one justice asked the agency's lawyer at oral argument if an unmarried man who just had sex should skip "smoking the classic cigarette" afterwards and instead immediately tell the Health Department "I want the state to know that I have just had sexual intercourse."

Members of the court were obviously aware of the fact that many unmarried men do not know their sex partner has become pregnant because the relationship had been casual and the partner does not advise the man that she is pregnant and carrying his child.  It may be months before the man learns of the pregnancy, often just prior to or after birth.

The Florida court decision has national implications since more than 33 percent of all children in the United States are born to unmarried parents.  Some 33 states have passed putative father registries.

Many states have passed these registries in order to limit the right of unmarried men to object to mothers placing the children for adoption without their consent or even awareness.

I last wrote about this issue on February 6, 2006 in a column entitled "Unmarried birth dads can't afford to be passive."  That commentary discussed a decision of the North Carolina Supreme Court which terminated the parental rights of an unmarried father who had failed to jump through various hoops and overcome several legal hurdles in his attempt to secure rights to his child.

Despite being given some leniency by the Florida Supreme Court, my warning to unmarried men who have unprotected sex is the same now as it was back then:

"Unmarried birth fathers need to be aggressive in asserting their parenting rights.  When it comes to establishing or forfeiting a life-long bond with a child, an impending or recent birth is not a time for an unmarried man to be timid." 

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Unmarried America 2007

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.