South Carolina Custody Laws for Unmarried Parents

Many children today are born to unmarried parents in South Carolina. If the parental relationship ends, questions may arise about child custody arrangements. Does the mother get sole custody? Does the father have rights? Our experienced Greenville child custody lawyers at Turner Family Law explain the custody laws in SC for unmarried parents and how they affect you.

Does the Father Have Rights Under the Custody Laws in SC for Unmarried Parents?

A biological mother has full parental rights under the law, and the male partner in an unmarried relationship must establish paternity to gain paternal rights. When a married couple has a child, there is an assumption that the man is the biological father; that is not the case with unmarried couples.

Mothers may legally relinquish their maternal rights in favor of the father. However, a mother’s informal consent is revocable, so fathers must establish their paternity to gain custody of their children.

According to unmarried custody laws in South Carolina, there are options for establishing paternity that address situations where the parents are in agreement and those where they are not.

Signed affidavit

When a child is born, the mother and father can both sign a Paternity Acknowledgement Affidavit. Signing the birth certificate isn’t enough for the father to establish paternity in South Carolina.

If couples complete this legal document after leaving the hospital, they can file it with the appropriate SC state agencies.

Department of Social Services order

When one parent wants to establish custody without the other’s agreement, they can work with the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS). Fathers must complete an application and pay a processing fee. DSS can then order a DNA test to determine paternity.

Why Do You Have To Comply With Custody Laws in SC for Unmarried Parents?

By law, you place yourself under the state’s jurisdiction when you conceive a child in SC. Even if fathers reside elsewhere, either parent can use the state’s legal system to file actions concerning a child conceived in SC.

Refusing to submit to a genetic test to determine paternity can mean giving up paternal rights, including visitation and custody. Every situation is different, so contact Turner Family Law for case-specific information.

Can the Court Award Joint or Sole Custody?

Under the custody laws in SC for unmarried parents, courts may grant joint or sole custody. Child custody breaks down further into physical and legal custody.

Joint custody

Joint legal custody gives both parents equal rights to make decisions for the child, such as health care, educational, and spiritual choices. Joint physical custody lets both parents share responsibility for actually caring for the child.

Sole custody

Sole custody grants all decision-making rights to one parent. While the non-custodial parent may still have visitation rights, courts may not approve visitation or may require supervised visits in cases of child abuse or other circumstances that present a danger to the child’s well-being.

A parent can’t have physical custody unless they also have legal custody. Unfortunately, unwed parents sometimes use this fact to punish the other parent. To ensure fair treatment, contact Turner Family Law today.

What Does the Court Consider When Awarding Custody?

SC child custody for unmarried parents focuses on the child’s best interests. Establishing paternity gives the father the same rights and obligations as the mother, so courts look at various factors to determine custody arrangements. Courts consider each parent’s:

  • Relationship with the child
  • Ability to care for the child, including physical, emotional, and financial state
  • Living situation
  • Previous or current instances of child neglect or abuse, drug use, or domestic violence
  • Character and attitude

Courts also look at the child’s age, gender, health, and any special needs. Depending on the child’s age, courts may also take the child’s preferences into account.

What Should Parents Do After Custody Is Granted?

When courts make a custody decision, they issue a court order that complies with custody laws in SC for unmarried parents. You must follow the terms of the order or risk being in contempt of court. These orders specify visitation rights and schedules, child support arrangements, and other matters that may apply to your situation.

You can appeal a judge’s decision, but you only have 30 days to file a notice of appeal. If granted, a higher court may uphold or overturn the initial decision.

Many parents hire an attorney at the onset of legal custody issues. If you haven’t done so and are unhappy with a court decree, contact Turner Family Law immediately so we can build your case and file an appeal before the deadline.


Unmarried parents with amicable relationships may work together when a situation requires flexibility without involving the court. For example, a planned vacation or medical emergency may necessitate a change in the visitation schedule.

Parents should not implement longer-term modifications without the court’s approval. Your custody arrangement is legally binding, and courts may decide you are in violation if you make any deviations. These violations can result in fines or jail time.

If you have reason to modify your custody arrangement, involve an experienced attorney and the court.

Contact an Experienced South Carolina Child Custody Attorney at Turner Family Law

If you need help understanding the nuances of custody laws in SC for unmarried parents or have a child custody issue, contact Turner Family Law 24/7. We offer a free case evaluation and look forward to hearing from you.

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