Legal Rights of Unmarried Fathers in Ohio

Under Ohio law, unmarried fathers are treated very differently than married fathers. Married fathers are protected by the law. Ohio Revised Code (ORC) §3109.03 provides that after a divorce the husband and wife “shall stand upon an equality as to the parental rights and responsibilities for the care of their children and the place of residence and legal custodian of their children, so far as parenthood is involved.”

In contrast, unmarried fathers have no legal rights unless/until they actively assert them in court—and not knowing when/how to assert those rights can have life-changing consequences for both father and child. ORC §3107.061 stipulates, “A man who has sexual intercourse with a woman is on notice that if a child is born as a result and the man is the putative father, the child may be adopted without his consent pursuant to division (B) of section 3107.07 of the Revised Code.”

The putative father registry is maintained by the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services. It is the responsibility of an unmarried father to know the law and to fill out the required documents. Under ORC §3107.07, the unmarried father must register with the putative father registry within 15 days of the child’s birth.

In the recent Ohio case In re Adpotion of T.L.S., 12th Dist. Fayette No. CA2012-02-004, 2012-Ohio-3129 , the court declared as follows:

The United States Supreme Court has determined that an unwed father's biological connection offers only the opportunity to possess fully-vested parental rights. See Rachel M. Gagnon, Crossing the Line for Unwed Fathers' Rights: A State of Chaos in the State of Ohio, 40 Cap. U.L. Rev. 561. (2012). The Court explained that a "mere existence of a biological link does not merit equivalent constitutional protection." Lehr v. Robertson, 463 U.S. 248, 261, 103 S.Ct. 2985, 2993, 77 L. Ed. 2d 614 (1983). The "significance of the biological connection is that it offers the natural father an opportunity  to develop a relationship with his offspring." Id. If the father "grasps that opportunity and accepts some measure of responsibility for the child's future, he may enjoy the blessings of the parent-child relationship and make uniquely valuable contributions to the child's development." Id.

An unmarried father has the “opportunity” to assert his rights but if he does not do so promptly then he can lose those rights forever. The law places the responsibility on the unmarried father to proactively assert that he is the father and that he intends to be involved in his child’s life, even if the mother actively prevents the father from being involved. The intent of the law may have been to protect mothers from negligent or abusive men but the result is that unmarried fathers who truly want to be involved can be cut off from their children.

Contact Anne Harvey at anne@anneharvey.com if you have any questions about fathers’ rights.

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