Child Custody and Visitation Guide for Single Mothers

If you’ve never married, never declared who the child’s father is, and never been involved in a custody process over your child, you have sole custody by default and you may never have to fret over any of the details below.

But read on if you, or someone you care about, is dealing with the complications of custody and visitation.


If the father of your child wants to be a part of the child’s life and he is not on the birth certificate, he’ll need to formally declare that he is the biological parent. He’ll probably have to take a DNA test. He can do this even if you don’t want him involved in your family. But this does not automatically guarantee him custody or even visits with your child.

Unfortunately, most single mothers who apply for financial assistance find that they must seek child support from the father before the government will give them help. This means they end up forcing the issue of paternity whether they want to or not.

Child Support

Once this man is formally declared to be the father, he becomes financially responsible for taking care of your child. Whether or not he pays as agreed can affect his ability to have visits and custody.


Typically, the child lives with one parent most of the time and visits the other one night a week and every other weekend. Holidays are rotated between homes. Check out the section below about Friendly Visitation for some ideas on making it easier for the kids and on you.


There are two kinds: physical and legal. Usually the parent who has the child living in their home most of the time has physical custody. Sometimes parents share this and it’s called joint custody. They may also have joint legal custody with the other parent. This means they both make decisions about the child’s schooling, religious upbringing, and healthcare. If a single mother has sole custody that means she makes all the decisions herself.

Who gets custody? The traditional answer used to be the mother. But now many states are more supportive of fathers’ rights. Usually, a judge places the child with the parent who has been the primary caregiver, as long as they have “good moral character” and financial means.

This is where the “best interest of the child” comes into play. If there has been abuse or neglect from either or both parents, it needs to be reported and investigated. If the abuse is serious, or if it’s a high-conflict divorce, a judge may appoint a lawyer specifically just for the child. These are called guardian ad litem attorneys.

The best interest of a child can also be considered in keeping the child near their school or special program, or close to needed treatment or care. If one parent is homeless or without any income, the other parent may win custody by default.

Legal Help

Check your state’s laws on the court’s website and seek out legal resources in your community. A great resource is They offer state-by-state information on custody and visitation, as well as information for immigrants and Native Americans.

You may be surprised to find that a nearby university has a free consultation night offered by their law school. Or that many attorneys in your area offer a free initial visit where you can ask a few questions. Cities have free or reduced-fee legal services for single parents with lower incomes, especially if there’s been an abuse investigation. Paralegals can’t give advice, but their services are a less-expensive way to fill out and file court documents.

If you or your child have been hurt by the child’s father, get help. There are so many people who want to help, people who have been there and don’t want anyone else to experience what they did. There’s always a state abuse hotline to call. Police departments have victims’ advocates. Women’s Shelters have crisis workers. Even schools have psychologists that you could visit under the guise of getting help for your child.

Moving out of state to escape the child’s father may seem like a good idea, but it could backfire. Get legal advice before you try it.

If neither you nor your child are in danger from your child’s father, things may still get awkward when it’s time for visits. If you want some good ideas to defuse a heated situation see the section below about Friendly Visitation.

Friendly Visitation

If we lived in a perfect world, how would your visitation exchanges look? Would the father show up on time for pick-up and drop-off? Would he bring back all the clothes and toys that you sent with your child? Would he stop badgering the children to see if you’re dating anyone?

When kids get stuck in the middle of their parents’ disputes they don’t like it. They often blame themselves when it’s not their fault at all. Sometimes they act out when they come home. They might be missing their dad, or maybe it’s the differences between house rules that make it hard to switch back and forth. They may need a day to adjust to being home again.

If things are really high-stress, consider getting a neutral third-party to help with exchanges. This can be a friend, or even a business that is paid to supervise.

Here are some ideas for keeping visits friendly and low-stress for your child:

  • Plan well ahead for holidays. Try to be fair and flexible even if it hurts. For example, if you want your child with you for all of Christmas break, remember that his dad’s parents are coming into town and would like to see their grandson too.
  • Find a way to communicate that works for both you and the father, whether it’s phone calls, texts, emails, or messaging.
  • Share the visit schedule with your child, and let them help plan if they’re older.
  • Be on time for pick-up and drop-off, or have your child ready to go if the father comes to your home.
  • Keep it civil with their father even if you’d rather not, especially if you’re in front of the children.
  • No trash-talking about the other parent or their partner in front of your child (even if what you say is all true).
  • No cross-examining the children after their visit. Stalk your ex on Facebook instead. You’ll get more information if the child volunteers it than if you have to drag it out of them.
  • If you’re the one receiving the visit, be there for your child. Have activities planned, even if it’s just a game of checkers.

Creative Custody Ideas

There are parents who move in and out of one house every couple of weeks to take turns caring for the children who live there full-time.

There are grandparents who take over custody so their children can find jobs and get their lives in order before they take over as parents. (Some states offer grandparents legal visitation; it’s called third-party rights.)


If your family has just split up, it may take a while to find your way. Hang in there. The family law court system is not known for being quick or easy. Get the best legal counsel you can. Talk with other single moms, join a support group. Maybe it will be you helping out someone else in the future.


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