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Unmarried fathers could use help in Florida custody cases

Your relationship is over. Your girlfriend has moved out -- and taken your baby with her. On the way out, she said you'll never see either one of them again.

She's the baby's mother, but that isn't her decision to make. Biological parents have, by law, the right to see their children -- in most circumstances -- or to seek custody, whether that's full or joint custody.

Judges will determine the best interest of the child when they make a custody ruling. And, unless judges are presented with evidence that one parent shouldn't be involved in the child's life, they typically will decide that children are better off having a strong relationship with both parents.

So, if you are an unmarried dad in Florida seeking visitation or custody of your child, here's what you need to know:

1. Establish paternity: If you weren't married to the baby's mother on the day the baby was born, you will need to establish paternity if you and your ex didn't do so at that time. If paternity is disputed, a court can order DNA testing. Once you are determined to be the father, you can pursue custody and visitation.

2. Negotiate a parenting agreement. That will spell out who will have primary custody and who the child will spend the holidays with. It also should include which parent will make decisions about health care, education and religion.

3. If you are unable to come to terms on a parenting agreement, you can ask the court to help. That would require a hearing. At the hearing, accusations about things such as drug use or domestic violence could be brought up. Be prepared to answer truthfully to anything your ex might say to try to paint you in a bad light.

Nothing is more important than our children, and unmarried fathers have a right to take a big part in raising the kids. If there is a custody dispute and you wind up in court, you'll want to put your best foot forward. A Florida attorney who works with custody issues can help you do just that.

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