The “tender years” doctrine, long used by courts to give priority to mothers in custody and family law matters, has been uniformly rejected by courts across the country over the last 50 years. Fathers now stand on equal legal footing with ex-spouses in family law disputes.
According to national statistics, more than 24 million children in the United States don’t reside with their biological father. Studies show, however, that when non-custodial fathers are regularly involved in their children’s lives, children do better in school, participate more in extra-curricular activities, and have a greater sense of self-esteem.
Until recently, most states followed what has been called the “tender years” doctrine, which held that mothers were more naturally inclined to be nurturers, and were accordingly better suited to care for minor children, particularly at younger ages. As more and more research has disproved this assumption, courts across the country have uniformly rejected the tender years doctrine.
A Father’s Basic Rights
In every state across America, a biological father has the following rights:
- To be involved in his child’s life on a regular and meaningful basis
- To request custody of a minor child
- To petition the court for child support if he has been granted custody
- To reasonable visitation with a minor child, if he has not been granted custody. This includes the right to be free of unnecessary interference or control by the custodial parent during times of visitation.
- To develop an ongoing relationship with a minor child.
Enforcing Your Rights as a Father
To enforce your rights as a father, you must be proactive. During the divorce process, you need to ask for custody, if that’s what you want. Be aware, though, that the court is charged with determining what is in the “best interests of the child.” The judge will look at a variety of factors, including parenting skills, existing bond with the child, and even the child’s wishes (usually after a determination that the child is old enough to understand the consequences of the decision) when deciding what is in the child’s best interests.
In addition, once your divorce if finalized, you need to be proactive to protect your rights. If your ex-spouse is wrongfully denying you visitation rights, you need to ask the court to enforce the divorce judgment. Your ex-spouse may be unhappy with you, but it’s the best way to protect your relationship with your child.