Do Courts Favor Moms?
Do Dads Have A Tougher Time In Court? Why?
When Allan Karr of Orange County, California married his pregnant girlfriend, he thought he was doing the right thing for the child.
Later his wife was brought up on charges in a rape case she had started against six men. According to authorities, she received less than a year of jail time and agreed to pay more than $1,800 to the state crime fund for victims as part of a plea agreement in the case.
The couple eventually split, and he has continued to battle to keep his son in his life.
In Karr’s case, marrying his girlfriend may have been the exact wrong thing to do. “Being married to the mother does not necessarily help a man in court,” says Mel Feit, the director of the National Center for Men, a men’s rights group based in Michigan that believes there are challenges to being both a married and unmarried man going before family court. “Each circumstance brings a different set of problems,” Feit says.
“For a never married man, there are a few obstacles to overcome in order to establish paternity and claim visitation time. A man who was not married to the mother might have to register and sign an acknowledgment of paternity if he wants to be the legal father. If he and the mother disagree on the last name of the child or on whether he can be on the birth certificate, there are more obstacles and legal wrangling he will have to face,” Feit says.
“Further, a couple who never got married might have had an easier breakup, but that does not necessarily make sharing a child easier,” Feit adds. “A never married woman might feel she should be more in control and that can make it much more difficult.”
Still, Feit has seen many married couples split. “And when they do, the accusations often fly,” he says. Some of those accusations can bring lifelong damage to the father-child relationship, says Feit, who has seen many of the men his group counsels lose their relationships with their children not because of the court, but because of the relationship with the ex-wife. “Married people tend to fight more aggressively in court,” Feit says.
For Karr, this has been the case. Although they share custody, it is required for Karr to provide an apartment for her and other stipulations that he feels may have been different had they never married. Still, Karr loves his son, saying he’s spent thousands in the court battle. “I adore the kid,” he said.
A court battle to maintain a relationship between a father and child can get worse if there’s a marriage, according to Garrett Luttrell, a paralegal and college student from outside of Pittsburgh whose own custody arrangement with his ex-girlfriend is basically as ideal as it could be. “I think maybe unmarried father have a better chance in family court,” Luttrell said.
He and his ex trade their daughter every other week. “She handles it very well,” says Luttrell who lights up at the mention of his three-year-old daughter. “Family court does tend to favor the mother for the most part,” says Luttrell, who became involved in the legal profession after he impregnated his girlfriend of four years and she left town with their child.
“Neither of us had any money for a lawyer,” says Luttrell who was just 20 when their daughter was born. He started doing much of the research himself and soon found that he enjoyed the work, so much so that he is planning to go to law school once he finishes his degree. “Some good has come out of all this,” says Luttrell.
In fact, his relationship with his ex-girlfriend is even surprisingly amicable. “We can discuss things related to our daughter easily,” Luttrell says. “That is not how I expected it to be between us.”
Luttrell did propose to his girlfriend when he found out she was pregnant. She declined and now he is glad that she did. “I think I may have been treated a little better by the family courts than a married father,” he says. “Family courts do seem to favor the mother in many cases.”
Feit agrees, but says there are many cases in which an unmarried father may fare far worse than his married counterpart. In fact, in Michigan, a child that results from an extra-marital affair is thought to be the child of the man the woman is married to at the time. Therefore, if her former lover wanted to claim his child, even if he had DNA evidence proving the child is his, his battle would be fierce to have any rights, says Feit, who has counseled men in just this position.
“There is a presumption of paternity,” says Feit. “The law basically says we don’t even care who the real father is. It is hard to help men in that situation,” Feit says. “On the one hand, in matters of collecting child support, DNA is everything,” he says. “And on the other hand, it is nothing. I really think it is a double standard.”
Still, Feit says he does not envy either the married man or the unmarried man fighting his way through the family court. “Married men may have more of a toxic climate, but both issues bring qualitatively different kinds of problems,” he says.
About the writer: Sasha Brown-Worsham is a freelance writer in Boston, Mass. who has written for the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Technology Review, Babble.com and many other publications.