05/04/2011 11:41 am ET Updated Jun 05, 2011

Legal Ramifications of Having Children Out of Wedlock

It seems today that there is no longer a stigma of having a child out of wedlock--not only a trend among celebrities, but also increasingly common amongst everyday couples. Not only a trend seen in the young and poor, it is a trend that has been illustrated across ages, income levels, and racial groups. While in past eras, such an event was shunned and the child considered "illegitimate" or a "bastard," that is no longer the case today.

Single women who found themselves pregnant in the past would demand shotgun weddings, but the rate of shotgun marriages has fallen over the years. This not only reflects the fact that having a child out of wedlock is more acceptable in society, but also reflects the escalating number of individuals choosing to put off marriage or live together without getting married. While some wedlock cases involve a single mother or father, there exist an increasing number of cases in which both parents are present and committed, but have chosen to not get married. The idea of marriage is no longer as popular, as many people fear the consequences of marriage if it does not work out and want to avoid the cost and stress of a marital dissolution proceeding.

Having a child out of wedlock, however, does not mean that you will not end up in a difficult situation needing the assistance of lawyers or the courts. There are all sorts of legal ramifications to becoming a parent, the two most important being financial obligations and custody issues:

1.Financial obligations such as child support, insurance, and childcare -- disputes over which can, and do, require people to divulge their financial status and argue over what contributions are reasonable. In the United States, unwed fathers carry the same obligations of providing financial support for their child as do fathers divorced from the child's mother. If there is an unwilling father, however, it becomes more difficult for the mother to obtain child support, as paternity must first be established (whereas paternity does not have to be established for a child born in a marriage -- it is assumed.)

2.Custody issues, both legal and physical, often arise if the relationship does not work out, or if people cannot agree on the appropriate arrangements. Disputes over a parent's lifestyle and how that may or may not affect the child, the ability of a parent to care for a child, or disputes over grandparent visitation are not uncommon in this arena. Again, U.S. courts apply the same criteria for custody disputes between unmarried parents as they do in custody disputes between divorcing couples. Custody will be awarded based on a child's "best interests," which is determined by assessing the physical and mental health, ability to support the child, behavior, and lifestyle of both parents.

Unlike the situation involving prenuptial agreements, there is little ability to work out arrangements ahead of the child's birth and make those binding. Public policy and existing statutes state that these issues are the rights of the children, not the parents, and cannot be contracted in advance. Additionally, the law states that limits cannot be placed on the amount of financial contributions required. Parentage cases can end up in court even before a child is born, and can lead to protracted and expensive battles between parties -- cases that are often just as dreadful as those that occur in a divorce proceeding. If parents are choosing to have children out of wedlock to avoid financial or legal entanglements, they are mistaken.