Access, guardianship & custody - how does it work?
If you're a single parent, here's where you stand with legal rights and responsibilities to your child
We know that single and unmarried parents love and care for their kids just as much as everyone else. However, your legal relationship to your child might be a little bit more complex. If you’re confused about what your legal rights are when it comes to raising your child as a single parent, here’s the lowdown:
There are three different types of legal rights when it comes to raising your child
Guardianship. This is the whole range of rights and duties a parent has when it comes to their child. The guardian is responsible for maintaining and caring for their child. They have the right to make decisions about their child’s life, such as their school, religion, and medical care.
Custody. Custody is the responsibility for the day-to-day care of a child. A parent with custody will be the parent who lives with the child, makes sure they are fed and clothed, and looks after all their daily needs.
Access. This is the right of a child and a parent who do not live together to spend time together. It is usually for a specified amount of time every week, fortnight or month. It doesn’t mean that this parent can make decisions about the child’s life, but it does mean they get to see the child and spend time together on a regular basis.
Wait a minute - guardianship and custody sound pretty similar. What’s the difference?
Well both parents might be guardians of the child (have the right to make decisions about the child’s life) but only one parent might have custody (be in charge of looking after the child on a daily basis). It’s possible to be a child’s guardian, but only have occasional custody.
So do both parents have automatic guardianship rights?
Only if they’re married. In Ireland, unmarried fathers have no automatic rights to guardianship, custody, or access. An unmarried mother is the sole automatic legal guardian to her child, even if the father is named on the birth cert.
I’m an unmarried mother - where do I stand?
As an unmarried mother, automatically you have full guardianship and custody of your child. You don’t need to make any applications for your relationship with your child to be legally recognised.
I’m an unmarried father and I want to get access to my child. What should I do?
If you get on well with the child’s mother, then you might be able to come to an informal agreement between yourselves about access. Make it clear to her that you want to see your child on a regular basis, and then you can agree a time and day that suits you both.
If you don’t get on so well with the mother, and can’t agree to an access arrangement, there are some other routes you can take. Legal Aid offer a family mediation service. This is when a trained professional meets you both and tries to help you come to an agreement. This service is free of charge.
If this fails, you can apply for access through the District Court. This might be confusing and daunting, but it is worth it to try get access to your child. You can get in touch with the Free Legal Advice centre for help in doing this. If your application is successful, the court can set the time, place, and duration of your access.
What about if I want to become the child’s guardian?
As we said, automatically the mother is the only automatic guardian of the child, and an unmarried father does not have any automatic legal rights. However, if the mother agrees, she can sign a form in the presence of a peace commissioner that gives the father joint-guardianship rights. You can download this form here.
If the mother does not agree to grant you guardianship, you can apply through the local District Court. The court will make a decisions with the child’s best interests in mind, but more often than not, they will grant joint-guardianship to the father.
I’m an unmarried father without access or guardianship to my child. Do I still need to pay maintenance?
Yes, you do. Unmarried fathers are legally obliged to pay maintenance to look after your child, whether you have access, guardianship or not.