Governor Signs New Legislation Affecting Father Rights
Among several other laws passed this year that significantly change marital and parental rights, Governor DeSantis signed into law new rights given to unwed fathers. The new law changes Florida Statute 742, a law that governs parental rights, child support, and responsibilities of both parents related to a newborn child. Beginning July 1st, 2023 many unwed fathers will now automatically receive specific parental rights that formerly went exclusively to the mother of the newborn child.
Mother and Father Rights Before the Change:
For many years a father had to jump through many legal hurdles before getting any type of parental authority or rights related to their newborn child. Florida law considered the mother to be the “natural guardian” of a child born out of wedlock. Fathers had several options at the birth of their child. They could elect to appear on the child’s birth certificate. Normally that would require the consent of the mother. When a father’s name appears on the birth certificate they are presumptively established as the legal father of the child. The other option allows fathers to sign a document called an Affidavit of Paternity. Likewise, the Affidavit establishes the legal fact of paternity. The third option for fathers was to decline the above actions and temporarily opt out of becoming the legal father of the child. This third option is at best temporary because most mothers eventually turn to the courts to establish Paternity in their quest to receive child support. Fathers that decided to take the third option mostly ended up with an obligation to pay child support combined with zero parental rights, as explained below.
Prior to the latest change, the mother automatically was designated the “natural guardian.” With this designation, the mother received 100% of the parenting rights. Those parenting rights included but were not limited to having the child live with them, making medical, religious, and educational decisions. Fathers that opted to legally become the child’s father earned only one right: the right to pay child support, and the potential right to go back to court in the future to pursue the full range of parental rights related to their child. The range of rights available to fathers only after securing a court judgment included the right to make life decisions for the child, the right for an exclusive share of residential parenting time, and many other rights and duties that logically go with being a parent.
Most of the time, a father’s right simply stopped at having the obligation for child support. A large percentage of fathers never gain any parental rights over their biological child. Many fathers considered this arrangement a gross injustice.
Changes in Effect Starting on July 1st, 2023
The new law modifies and adds to the current Florida Statute governing children born out of wedlock. The intent was to link together several rights inherent in becoming a parent.
A biological father, through any means available, that is legally declared the father of a child will now have various duties and obligations that are linked together. The new law automatically confers an equal status to both the mother and father of a newborn child. The most important effect of the change is summed up in this excerpt of the new law: “The mother of a child born out of wedlock and a father who has established paternity are the natural guardians of the child and are entitled and subject to the rights and responsibilities of parents.”
What does this mean for parents?
- When an individual establishes themselves as a father they automatically receive and can exercise full parental rights.
- The split of parental rights between mother and father are initially undefined but both parents clearly have rights to the child and have rights to make decisions on behalf of the child.
- Both the father and mother have the continuing duty to financially support the child
- The specifics of the above statements must be hammered out by a domestic relations court.
One Important Benefit to Fathers
The situation that has frequently happened in the past will now be prevented by the new law. Specifically, the situation where a father end’s up with an obligation of child support but has absolutely no parental rights over their child.
One Obvious Downside for Both Parents
By giving equal but undefined parental rights to both parents the new law sets up a situation where there may be more frequent court litigation over defining the exact extent of each parent’s rights.
As stated above the new law becomes effective on July 1st, 2023. There is no provision in the change indicating if the law is retroactive or only governs children born after the effective date. That issue will no doubt be decided over time by the courts.