When parents split up, one of the most important things to get in place is a custody agreement that designates where their children will live, what visitation rights each parent will have and what each one's decision-making rights will be regarding their children's education, health care and other aspects of their upbringing.

Whether parents were married or not, a court order codified physical and legal custody rights as well as visitation rights. Until that is done, custody issues often are governed by state laws.

Unmarried Parents

If the parents are married, they are both considered to be the legal parents of their children, with equal rights to them. That means that either parent can take children anywhere he or she wishes for as long as they choose without legal ramifications if no custody agreement states otherwise.

However, if a parent chooses to keep the kids away from the other parent, that will likely impact that parent's efforts to gain custody or visitation rights later. It's best for parents to refrain from keeping their children away from their other parent. A court is less likely to grant custody rights to a parent who has demonstrated that he or she cannot be trusted not to return children to their other parent.

Married Parents

If the parents aren't married to one another, the mother has sole legal and physical rights to the couple's children in most states when there is no custody agreement in place. If that's the case, the mother has the right to grant or deny the father visitation rights to the kids.

That means that in most states, unmarried fathers have no legal rights to custody of their children until they are established by a court order. Some states will allow the father custody rights equal with those of the mother if an affidavit of paternity is on file until a court order establishes a custody arrangement.

Most people don't anticipate any issues with access to their children or decisions made on their behalf before their custody agreement is approved by the court. However, it's always wise to address custody and visitation issues as soon as possible for your children's sake. Your family law attorney can provide guidance and help you with the necessary legal documents.

However, in many states, as soon as a divorce is filed, neither parent can withhold the child from the other, though there is no court order in place.

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