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You may think about child support and visitation in the context of divorce, but these matters are equally important when unmarried couples share children. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts encourages parents to be thoughtful when dealing with the issues that may arise from sharing children outside of traditional marriage.

Unmarried parents must think about three critical legal issues: paternity, child support and visitation.

Paternity

By establishing paternity, you ensure that your children have a legal father. This means that your children may receive financial support from their father, including the right to benefits like health insurance and Social Security. Proving paternity may also give your children the right to information about their father’s medical history. You may establish paternity in the hospital, at your local clerk’s office or through court-ordered genetic testing.

Child support

Raising children is expensive, and you have bills for basic necessities like housing, food, clothing and education. Child support is an important financial commitment that can help cover these costs. While some parents may prefer a casual arrangement, having court-ordered child support may help ensure that financial resources are available for the benefit of your children.

Visitation

Visitation rights allow parents to spend time with their children. Courts take into account the children’s best interests when issuing visitation orders. A court may weigh factors like the parents’ relationship, the proximity of the parents’ houses to each other, work schedules and substance abuse or criminal problems.

Visitation is separate from custody. If you have legal custody, you have the right to make important decisions for your children in matters like education and health care. When unmarried parents have children, the mother has sole legal custody. The father must petition for joint custody, and proof of paternity may be a relevant consideration in the court’s order.