Parental Rights for Unwed Biological Fathers in Wisconsin

By Cindy Chung

Updated July 21, 2017

Father carrying daughter piggyback


Wisconsin fathers do not automatically assume parental rights when they have children with women who are not their wives. Before they assert parental rights to make decisions for their children or get a court-approved parenting schedule, unmarried fathers must usually establish their paternity under Wisconsin law. Fathers who have legally established paternity by voluntary acknowledgment or through a court case can then petition the Wisconsin courts for help with custody, visitation and child support.

Legal Significance of Paternity

In Wisconsin, when unmarried parents have a child together, the child's mother has sole custody, meaning the legal right to raise the child or control custody of the child. Under these circumstances, the child's mother will continue to have sole custody unless the father gets a court order to establish his parental rights. Though a father does not need a court order to spend time informally with his child, without legal status as the child's father he does not have a guaranteed right to continue his relationship with the child. To request court orders for custody and other parental rights, a man must first establish legal fatherhood, also known as paternity and identify himself as the child's father.

Procedures to Gain Parental Rights

Wisconsin recognizes three separate ways for unwed biological fathers to establish paternity and gain parental rights. First, the two unmarried parents can sign a Wisconsin Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity form, which they can obtain at several locations, including at the hospital after the child's birth, their local child support office, the local register of deeds or the Wisconsin vital records office. However, the mother and unmarried father cannot sign the voluntary acknowledgment if she was married to another man at the time of the child's conception or birth. If the parents later marry, they can sign the Wisconsin Acknowledgment of Marital Child form. Alternatively, a man can establish his parental rights by opening a court case for paternity or by participating in a paternity case opened by the child's mother; local child support offices may also open paternity cases.

Right to Get a Parenting Plan

Once a man has established legal fatherhood of his child, he has the right to request custody and parenting time with the child. Wisconsin's child custody laws do not depend on the parents' marital status; the state courts must follow the same principles as they would in a custody action for married parents in a divorce. Under Wisconsin law, the court must approve a parenting plan that focuses on the child's best interests. The parenting plan states whether either the father or mother, or both parents, have legal custody to make major decisions on behalf of the child. The parenting plan also includes orders for physical placement, which determines the child's daily schedule and living arrangement. While the Wisconsin courts must emphasize meaningful placement with each parent, the court does not have to give equal amounts of time to each parent.

Child Support Rights

When the parents or the Wisconsin courts have not identified a child's legal father through an acknowledgment of paternity or a court action, an unmarried father has no obligation to pay child support. An unmarried father has the right to request genetic testing through the local child support office if he believes he is not the child's father and should not have to pay child support. The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families can provide assistance to unmarried fathers who need an explanation of their parental rights or their child support orders.