When unmarried parents separate: What you should know about parental responsibility

Parental responsibility is an area that is made more complicated when parents are unmarried, and this is especially true when they separate. Without a divorce, there is no legal requirement to officially record their parental responsibilities, child support payments and visitation schedules, so it is up to the separating couple to find an amicable solution that prioritizes their children’s wellbeing.

Parental responsibility and Colorado law

Under Colorado law, when a child is born to unmarried parents, the mother is granted sole legal and physical custody. This means that unless paternity is established and formally recorded, when an unmarried couple separate, the father has no legal right to parenting time and is not required to pay child support.

Establishing paternity

Ideally, paternity should be established upon the birth of a child and formally recorded, either by adding the father’s name to the child’s birth certificate or by signing a voluntary acknowledgment of parentage.1 Both of these options entitle the father to equal parental rights and saddle them with equal parental responsibilities.

If, however, an unmarried couple never formalized their children’s parentage before they separate and the mother wishes for the father to assume joint parental responsibility and pay her child support, it will be necessary to first lawfully establish paternity. There are three ways in which this can be achieved: by signing a voluntary acknowledgment of parentage, by obtaining an Administrative Paternity Order, or by seeking a Judicial Paternity Order. In the final option, a court may order DNA testing to prove a genetic link.

If the father is happy to retain parental responsibility, this process can be conducted quickly and efficiently. If, however, the father does not wish to retain parental responsibility for the children he has raised thus far, the mother will need to raise a court order to attain a Judicial Paternity Order.

Why joint parental responsibility is beneficial

Joint parental responsibility allows each parent to care for their children after they separate from their partner. This is beneficial for their children’s well-being and provides them with a stable and supportive upbringing.

Sharing custody gives each parent time to themselves to pursue their own interests and hobbies, spend time with family and friends, and further their career and personal desires.

Having joint parental responsibility means that all major decisions pertaining to a child’s life will be made jointly by two parents, increasing the likelihood that the decisions made related to a child’s home, education, medical treatment and religious studies will be made with their best interests at heart.

Finally, joining parental responsibility means that neither parent has to assume full financial responsibility for raising their children, even after the dissolution of their relationship. Returning to single life is a hard move, and being free from financial hardship will ease the transition.

Handling parental responsibility disputes

Once joint parental responsibility is obtained, there are still many reasons disagreements may occur. These include disagreements about parenting time, particularly if either parent wants to change their custody agreement or periods of visitation; disagreements about major life decisions; and allegations of unfit parenting. When disagreements arise, it is beneficial for the children if these can be settled informally and amicably by the parents themselves.

When disagreements cannot be resolved informally, it may be necessary to seek support from a trained mediator who can provide a safe environment in which each parent can state their views or concerns and allow their ex to explain their reasoning. Often, mediation allows couples to find common ground and reach an acceptable solution without impacting the children’s wellbeing.

In cases where informal dispute resolution mechanisms fail to achieve a satisfactory outcome, it may be necessary to seek legal support from an experienced family law practitioner, who will offer advice based on the specific circumstances of the case.

A family law attorney will be able to provide guidance, advocate on their client’s behalf, and help them to prioritize their children’s best interests, regardless of their feelings toward their ex. They can provide impartial advice and signpost their clients to professional services such as parenting training, financial support services and counseling services that may help them better navigate the life changes that they are experiencing.

Put your children first

Unmarried parents who separate face unique challenges when it comes to establishing parental responsibility and joint custody, but the majority of these can be resolved amicably and informally.

While it is helpful to understand the legal framework that applies to establishing paternity, parenting time and child support obligations, it is essential to prioritize the best interests of the children involved and seek a positive outcome that supports a strong and effective co-parenting relationship.2

For help with any aspect of family law, including establishing parentage, divorce or handling an unmarried separation, please contact the team at Lewis & Matthews, P.C. today.


  1. https://casetext.com/statute/colorado-revised-statutes/title-19-childrens-code/article-4-uniform-parentage-act/section-19-4-105-presumption-of-paternity ↩︎
  2. https://childsupport.state.co.us/about/faq ↩︎