As a family law attorney I get calls regularly from people with custody issues with their child’s other biological parent. These days it is not uncommon for parents to split up having never been married. This essay will break with my normal blog format in that I will use the following typical parenting situation to show several possible legal problems.

Imagine a young man and young woman who have been dating for several months or more. The couple has a small child during their relationship. Now imagine the pair breaking up. Dad moves out. The mother keeps the child. What could possibly go wrong here? Let’s have a look at a selection of possible problems. Note that any or all of these problems could occur at the same time.

• Under the law both parents have equal right to see the child. Indeed Texas encourages both parents to play an active role in the child’s rearing. So when can the father see the child? What days? When does he pick the child up? When does he drop the child back off? Holiday visits? These details are the source for many conflicts between parents.

• What happens if dad picks up the child from school unexpectedly and keeps the child for the whole weekend without mom knowing his intention? Remember that dad has as much right to the child as mother. What stops him from taking the child and moving to another city? Nothing in the law automatically gives mom priority over dad when deciding where and with whom the child lives.

• What if mom still has the child but moves in with a new guy who has a lengthy criminal record, and hangs out with a bad crowd? What can dad do to protect the child? Clearly if mom wants to date a dangerous loser, that’s her choice, but can she take the child into that environment?

• What if mom falls on hard times and files for benefits like WIC, Medicaid, Food Stamps, TANF, etc.? Even if mom never asks for child support, the Office of the Attorney General will file for child support from the father. So dad gets slapped with child support unexpectedly because mom files for benefits.

This list is far from exhaustive. There are many other possible conflicts that could arise when there are no formal court orders defining the rights, duties, and responsibilities of the parents. And again, any of the above issues can occur at any time during the 18 years the child is a minor.

Think of it like this. If the couple had been married, the divorce decree would have addressed the specifics regarding visitation, who provides medical insurance for the child, who pays child support and how much is paid, who makes decisions about religious upbringing of the child, who determines the primary residence of the child, who makes education decisions for the child, and more. These decisions need to be allocated to the parents in an appropriate manner. If these questions are important to answer in the case of a married couple, why on earth would an unmarried set of parents not need the same questions answered?

As always, this essay is not intended to replace competent legal counsel, but is intended to be educational in nature only. But if you or someone you know is a parent of a child with no court orders in place to define the rights, duties, and responsibilities of the parents, I strongly recommend consulting an attorney to start the process of getting such orders in place. Failing to get court orders is often not a money saving tactic because eventually one party or the other will start a court proceeding. It will be better to have the proceeding while both parties want their rights established.