Arizona Child Custody Laws for Unmarried Parents


By the law in Arizona, if a woman has a child out of wedlock, the mother automatically becomes the sole legal custodian until paternity is established or the court determines the custodial parent. Until that time, the mother has the right to make arrangements for the child without consulting the biological father. An unwed mother may arrange for an adoption of a child, remove the child from the father or not allow the father to see the child.

However, the mother may seek child support from the child’s biological father without going to court to obtain custody.

Making the Custody Clear According to the Law

If the father pursues custody rights, it is advised that the mother do so as well. By law, in Arizona, it is assumed that both parents share equally in making decisions for the child, unless there is a custody order. By obtaining the custody order, the unwed mother is solidifying her position in relationship to the child.

Establishing Paternity

Paternity can be established legally in 3 ways. First, by the results of a test in which there is a 95% likelihood that the male is the father. Second, if both parents sign the birth certificate of a child born out of wedlock, paternity is presumed. Third, if both parents sign a statement in front of a notary identifying the father, then paternity is established.

Note that a judge can rule against this third way in establishing paternity if there is sufficient evidence that the man is not the father.

The court can validate paternity in 3 ways. First, if the father files a response admitting paternity then it is accepted. Second, the court can order a DNA test. Third, if the father refuses to appear in court or respond to legal requests, paternity can be ordered.

When an unwed mother requests support through a court order, paternity needs to be established. Sometimes fathers are not willing to comply as they do not wish to support the child financially.

Both Parents Bear the Responsibility

The law makes the assumption that it is in the child’s best interest that both parents raise the child. The law no longer favors the mother or father regarding custody, as long as the arrangement is in the child’s best interest. Furthermore, many states are moving to favoring joint custody. If a mother wants to establish sole custody, she must outline why shared custody would not be in the best interest of the child.

Circumstances for Sole or Full Custody

Sole custody needs to be qualified as there are several circumstances that people refer to as sole custody.

A parent can have sole physical custody of the child, meaning that the child lives with them alone. That can be extended to sole physical and legal custody, which means the child lives with one parent only and the one parent has exclusive rights to make decisions for the child.

An unwed mother can gain sole physical and legal custody of the child if the other parent is not fit to care for the child due to a physical inability, if there is a severe drug or alcohol issue or if there is a history of abuse or neglect. An unwed mother can also point out that the father has not been significantly involved with the child to date or has refused to support the child financially.

But with older children, if the child wishes to be with one parent or the other, the court takes that into consideration.

If there is some question about the stability of the parent, the court will rule in favor of the most stable environment. How does the judge gather the information to determine stability? At times, facts may come out in court. At other times, the judge may request a social agency, such as the Child and Family Support Services, to make an investigation and then report back with their findings.

Another factor in sole custody is the age of the child. Often, it is in the best interest of very young children to have one home. As they grow older, this can change and with very young children the primary care giver is usually the mother, so the court often rules that the sole physical custody be granted to the mother. However, both parents can share legal custody in making decisions for the child.

Other Types of Custody

Joint legal and physical custody means that both parents can share living with the child in different locations and making decisions for the child.

In practicality, it may mean that the child lives with one parent half of the week and the other parent the rest of the week. Often parents in this situation make arrangements to suit everyone’s lifestyle, including the child. It may mean that the child lives with mom during the week and goes to school in her neighborhood but spends the weekends and the summer vacation with dad.

Joint physical custody means that the child lives with both parents in their locations half the time in one location, half the time in the other. But one parent retains the right to make decisions for the child.

With non-parent custody, someone else, such as the grandparents, has legal and physical status for the child. However, this only takes place in the following circumstances: one parent has died, the legal parents are unmarried or the custody case is still before the courts.

Who Are the Majority of Unwed Mothers in Arizona?

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, In 2015 45% of births in Arizona are to unwed mothers. Across the United States, the average is 40%.

Although not all unwed mothers are teens, most teens are unwed mothers. Teen mothers come with a whole host of other problems beyond what you first might imagine: poverty, providing the necessities of life for themselves and the child, health problems, education, and risky behaviors in general. There is a substantial financial cost for the society in this situation due to the necessity for providing proper support, such as food stamps and low income housing. In 2013, there were about 17,000 unwed mothers who were teenagers in Arizona.

Call the Family Law Team at (480) 467-4348 to discuss your case today.

Contact Our Family Law Team

Call (480) 467-4348 or fill out the form to schedule your consultation and discuss your best legal options.