Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

February 6, 2006  



Unmarried birth dads can't afford to be passive

by Thomas F. Coleman

Michael Avery recently learned a hard lesson.  Unmarried birth fathers must be very quick and very aggressive in asserting paternity rights to a newborn child or they will have no say if the birth mother puts the child up for adoption.

Michael's situation has national ramifications considering that most young people are sexually active by the time they turn 18 years old.  More than 35 percent of all children born in 2004 had unmarried parents.

Michael met his girlfriend, Kristine Anderson, while they were both enrolled in high school in North Carolina.  The relationship resulted in an unplanned pregnancy in the summer of 2002.

In January 2003, Kristine gave birth to a baby girl.  A few days later, she filed a petition in court asking for permission to put the baby up for adoption even though Michael did not consent.  Michael filed a response, insisting that he should have some role in deciding the fate of his daughter.

The court hearing focused on whether Michael had complied with the requirements of a North Carolina statute.  The law in that state makes the consent of an unwed father unnecessary when a child is placed for adoption, unless the father has provided “in accordance with his financial means, reasonable and consistent payments for the support of the biological mother during or after the term of pregnancy.”

Testimony established that Michael had made offers of financial support to Kristine on several occasions but the offers were refused.  Michael's mother also invited Kristine to come and live in the Avery household but that offer was rejected as well.  Kristine's father refused to accept a letter that Michael brought to the Anderson house, in which Michael expressed his willingness to provide ongoing support for the baby.

The Supreme Court of North Carolina ruled that such offers of support were not sufficient to give Michael any paternity rights. 

Never mind that Michael was the undisputed biological father of the baby and that he offered support on several occasions.  Never mind that his offers were rejected by Kristine.  Forget the fact that Michael protested the adoption as soon as Kristine filed a lawsuit seeking court permission to give the baby up without the birth father's consent.

The state Supreme Court indicated that it wanted a "bright line" rule that required significant financial payments made for the benefit of the baby or mother.  Clear-cut, black and white requirements would rule the day; no gray areas allowed.  The right of a young man to raise his own child or for a child to be raised by her own biological father apparently were insignificant matters to the court in contrast to the need for automated cookie-cutter justice.

Mary Martin Mason, author of Out of the Shadows: Birthfathers' Stories, believes that unmarried birth fathers such as Michael Avery are misunderstood by society.  She laments the fact that unwed dads are routinely pushed out of the picture without regard to the ultimate emotional and psychological damage which can be done to the child as well as the biological father.

So what is an unmarried man to do if he wants to protect his parenting rights without being ignored or pushed away by the birth mother or the courts?

Unfortunately, despite the desire of the North Carolina Supreme Court to have a "bright line" rule in unwed parenting cases, the rules will vary from state to state.  What an unmarried dad does in one state to protect his rights may not be sufficient to protect his rights in other states.

Assuming that the unwed father-to-be is aware that his girlfriend or sexual partner is pregnant, he should take immediate steps to establish paternity.  He should also provide financial support, according to his ability, for the benefit of baby and mother, both before and after the child is born.

If the mother rejects offers of support, the man should open a bank account in trust for the child and make regular deposits into that account.   Some states have a "putative father registry" where a man can register his claim to be an unwed father.  All states have some procedure where an unmarried man can initiate a proceeding to establish paternity.

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. 

© Unmarried America 2006

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.