Marriages and relationships break up all the time, leaving former partners to sort through the fallout from their breakup or divorce. But in many (if not most) splits between unmarried partners, the custody and visitation arrangements remain nebulous.

Research has shown that when fathers have access to their children, they are more motivated to pay child support for their offspring. The kids also benefit from having both mom and dad involved in their lives. Studies have shown that kids who regularly interact with both parents get better grades and suffer from fewer adverse mental health conditions.

However, unmarried fathers who split from their children’s mothers often are denied decision-making rights and even access to their children. Married dads are presumed to have equal rights to custody and decision-making, at least in theory. But unmarried dads typically must turn to the courts to get the same relief.

The first order of business is for the father to sign an acknowledgment of paternity — and in some cases, establish their paternity with a DNA test if there is any question whether they fathered the child. Once that has been determined, the next step is for the father to petition the court for custody and/or visitation.

In the past, the courts tended to side with the children’s mothers on these matters, perhaps ordering every-other-week visitation with the fathers (if that). But family law courts have become more enlightened over the years and no longer automatically presume that the kids will be better off living with mom and visiting dad only occasionally.

If you are an unmarried New Jersey father who wants more time with his children, seeking the counsel of a family law attorney can clarify your options and help you determine the best course of action.