Custody and Access of Children of Unmarried Parents

Separation of children from parents tested positive of COVID
Oct 9, 2020

After the breakdown of a relationship, matters of child custody and access can become a thorny issue for the parties involved. This is equally the case whether the parents are married or unmarried.

What are the rights of unmarried fathers?

Some unmarried fathers may believe that they automatically have the same rights and authority as the mother. While this may be the case for married fathers, it is not so straightforward for unmarried fathers. Under the Guardianship of Minors Ordinance, where a child is born out of wedlock, only the mother has automatic parental rights and authority. An unmarried father will have to apply to the Hong Kong Court for an order that he shall have some or all of the parental rights in respect of the child.

But what does it mean to have parental rights? Generally speaking, the rights and authority of a parent includes:-

  • the right to live with the child and control the child’s day-to-day upbringing;
  • the right to the physical “possession” and “services” of the child;
  • the right to choose the child’s education;
  • the right to choose the child’s religion;
  • the right to choose the child’s surname;
  • the right to inflict moderate punishment on the child;
  • the right to consent to medical treatment for the child;
  • certain rights to enter into contracts on the child’s behalf;
  • the right to act for the child in legal proceedings;
  • the right to administer the child’s property;
  • the right to appoint a testamentary guardian for the child;
  • the right to consent to an application for a passport for the child;
  • the right to arrange for the child to leave or emigrate from the jurisdiction;
  • the right to consent to the child’s marriage;
  • the right to consent to the child’s adoption.

In practice, it is prudent for the unmarried father to register his name on the child’s birth certificate which may help in resolving any disputes in the future.

When deciding on whether to grant an order that an unmarried father shall have some or all of the parental rights in respect of the child, the Court will consider the following factors:-

  • the degree of commitment which the father has shown towards the child;
  • the degree of attachment which exists between the father and the child; and
  • the reasons of the father for applying for the order.

Custody and access arrangements for children of unmarried parents

It is ideal for unmarried parents to come to an agreement in relation to the arrangements for their child to avoid the stress and cost of having to go to Court. However, where the separation is acrimonious or where there are disagreements over matters such as what school the child shall attend, where the child will live, when the child shall have access with the father, these matters can be brought to the Court to be resolved.

As is the case with married parents, the best interests of the child is the first and paramount consideration of the Court when deciding on custody and access arrangements.  The Courts tend to favour joint custody orders as being in the best interests of the child in order to recognise the joint involvement of both parents in the major decisions relating to the child. The exception to this would be where there is very high conflict between the parents and they are unable to communicate or cooperate each other, in which case an order for sole custody may be more appropriate.

For young children of unmarried parents, it is generally ideal for the child to have the stability of living with one parent (usually the mother) on a day-to-day basis and have regular and structured access with the father. This can be organised in numerous ways. For instance, the unmarried father may wish to have evening access with the child on weekdays after school to enable him to have dinner with the child and continued involvement in the child’s studies and homework. Access on weekends may also be considered to let the unmarried father have quality time with the child and to take the child out for fun activities such as the cinema, theme parks and the beach. The unmarried father may also be allowed to have telephone calls with the child. For holidays, it is usually considered fair to allow an unmarried father to have some access during the holidays and for the father to take the child overseas for trips, if appropriate. The appropriate arrangements, however, will vary depending on the age of the child and the suitable arrangements for a baby or toddler will be very different from a teenager.

It should be noted that any order in relation to custody or access will not be enforceable if the parties are living together and an order will cease to have effect if the unmarried parents continue to reside together for more than 3 months after the order is made.

For more information about the financial obligations of unmarried parents for children after separation, please see our previous article on the topic.

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