What to Know About Father's Rights

Stereotypical parental roles and household structures in 2020 are significantly different than in recent decades past. Mothers and fathers are both working and sharing parental duties previously associated with one gender or the other. Households are founded by same-sex and interracial marriages and/or life-partnerships. There is more diversity and emphasis on equal rights among parents than seemingly ever before. All the diversity and shared responsibilities in the world cannot preclude the inevitability of a significant percentage of U.S. marriages ending in divorce each year, however.

When divorce occurs and children are involved, custody and financial arrangements must be created. It is during these moments when the true nature of how each parent feels about the other’s parental rights is revealed. Ideally the best interests of the children involved are prioritized. This is not always the case due to elevated tensions and emotions between parents. In not so distant times, fathers had reduced rights regarding child custody and visitation. Historically, however, this was not always the case.

Brief History of Parental Rights in the U.S.

Old English common law dictated fathers were to receive custody of their children in the event of a divorce. This was perhaps due to men having the bulk of power and women having significantly less rights during the turn of the 19th century. It was also due to the majority of fathers earning a living on their own farmlands, or in workshops and markets on or near their properties. 

This old English law traveled west with American colonists and took further root in the U.S. until the Industrial Revolution began to surge. New lucrative industries lured fathers away from their own land to work jobs in factories and manufacturing plants. Women were left at home to tend to the children by default.

By the year 1839 women were granted permission to request custody of their children up to seven years old. By 1873, British Parliament enacted the Tender Years Doctrine, which stated mothers are best suited to care for their children. The United States followed the British lead in this regard into the next century, temporarily albeit significantly reducing father’s parental rights when divorced or unwed. 

Father’s Rights and Paternity

Parents do not have to be married to become embroiled in custody disputes. Unmarried couples with children are subjected to the same standards as married couples when the courts determine what is in the best interest of said children. In the event of custody disputes between unmarried parents, however, fathers must prioritize proof of paternity before taking any other actions. 

Paternity tests can still be required when divorcing couples are negotiating for custody and/or visitation rights. A paternity test can protect a father from two perspectives. First, a father can request a paternity test when a spouse is suspected, accused or proven to have committed acts of infidelity.

Second, a positive paternity test can protect a father’s rights to visitation and custody when his ex-wife is attempting to force him out of a child’s life due to pressure or influence from her new relationship. Regardless of the reason for taking the paternity test, a father is only capable of pursuing custody and/or exercising his rights after paternity is established and validated in court. 

Visitation and Custody Rights for Father’s

Once biological paternity is established a father can begin exercising his rights to visitation and custody. There is physical custody, which entails where children live and which parent is the primary caregiver. There is also legal custody, which gives fathers the right to make schooling, medical, religious and other crucial decisions in the best interest of the child.

Physical custody has several layers to its terms. Joint custody involves children dividing time between the mother and father’s respective homes. Courts agree to joint custody when both parents have established suitable living environments prioritized for the best interest of the children. Courts prefer both parents are active in the children’s lives and attempt to establish joint custody arrangements whenever possible. 

Sole custody is granted to one parent when it is proven the other parent is incapable of adequately caring for the children. Sole custody does not necessarily mean the non-primary parent loses all rights to visitations and decision-making. These situations are monitored by the courts and considered adaptable due to potentially changing circumstances in both parent’s lives.

Primary custody involves children living with one parent in one home, but allows for partial physical custody by the other parent on temporary or a regularly scheduled basis. This could mean, for example, children live with the father full time, but stay with the mother every other weekend.


Visitation is different than custody. Visitation can be monitored or supervised time with the children in the presence of the primary parent or a social worker. It can also mean day trips on Saturdays with a designated time the children must be taken back to the primary parent’s home. The terms of visitation agreements must usually be adhered to with care to prevent the exacerbation of tensions between parents, which could consequently result in regression and heading back to court.                            

Qualifying Factors Determining Father’s Rights

The qualifying factors determining a father’s rights to paternity, visitation and custody are quite similar to determining factors affecting the rights of a mother. The best interest of the children must be prioritized. The court will not only look for proof this is happening, it will also demand it.

A father must prove financial stability and an ability to provide for his children. There must be no patterns of neglect or abuse. A criminal history and pattern of drug or alcohol abuse will adversely impact a father’s rights pursuant to custody and visitation. A strong, stable and adequate household in a safe neighborhood and also in a strong school district can also bolster a father’s rights to custody and visitation. Other household members can also have an impact on a father’s rights, be it beneficial or adverse.                                                                        

COVID-19 and U.S. Divorce Rates

The perception where 50 percent of all U.S. marriages end in divorce is more an averaged myth than it is a factual statistic. There are 2016 statistics showing how 16.7 per 1,000 U.S. marriages ended in divorce. There are other statistics showing how forty-five percent of U.S. marriages end in divorce overall. These statistics are fluid, however, due to new marriages occurring while old marriages are ending.

One statistic having a more solid foundation is the thirty-four percent increase in U.S. divorces since the COVID-19 pandemic hit stateside earlier in 2020. Parents and children have been forced to stay home together for longer periods of time than normal. Social distancing and political tensions are at unprecedented and crucial peaks. Financial hardship is rampant with no end in sight. These COVID-19 related factors helped increase divorce rates, which in turn are forcing fathers to educate themselves and advocate for their parental rights.