Single Mothers' Rights

by Ann Hudson

A mother may become a single parent through divorce, widowhood or an estrangement from the father of her child. A single mother's rights regarding such important issues as custody, child support or visitation can vary from state to state. Having a clear understanding of these rights is vital. Rights in family law will first consider the needs and rights of the child over the wants and demands of either parent. Ideally, the best interests of the child should be the primary criteria in all decision making. When it comes to basic parental rights, the law strives to be gender-neutral.

Basic rights

Basic parental rights apply equally to both mothers and fathers and remain with each parent whether they are married or single unless a parent surrenders these rights or does something that causes parental rights to be revoked. These rights include the right to custody of their child, the right to expect obedience and cooperation from the child, the rights to any earnings that the child might make, and the right to sue anyone who is guilty of wrongfully injuring or ending the life of a child. Each parent also equally bears specific responsibilities to the child under the law. These responsibilities include supporting and providing for the child and making sure that the child is supervised and under control. These rights and responsibilities apply even when the parent is a minor.


In decades past, mothers were often given a preference when it came to the parental right of custody. This was based on a principle called the "tender years doctrine," which presupposed that the relationship between the mother and the child was more crucial to a child's development than the relationship with the father. We now understand that paternal relationships are just as important as maternal ones. The law has become gender-neutral in areas of child custody but the myth still prevails that the mother's rights are given preference.


Unless a father is deceased or has terminated all parental rights, both parents have to work out an agreement when it comes to the custody of their child. If not, the court will decide by taking into account the following factors: parental preference, the child's preference, continuity for the child, parent/child relationships, which parent has provided primary care, any mental or physical health issues of either parent, any history of physical, sexual or substance abuse on the part of either parent, and financial ability to provide. A single mother may find herself at a disadvantage in financial areas. However, if she has been the child's primary caregiver, this can serve as an advantage in custody disputes.


It's not commonly understood that visitation with a parent is a right that actually belongs to the child. However, a single mother who does not have primary custody of her child can certainly seek visitation. No parent has the right on their own to deny the child's right of visitation with the other parent. If a single mother has primary custody but she feels that paternal visitation should not occur because of abuse on the father's part, she has the right to petition the court to ask that paternal visitation be denied so long as she can provide evidence of abuse.


Support is another area that is often misunderstood. It's the child's right to be supported financially and not either parent's right to receive funding that is in question. However, a single mother has the right to seek financial help from the father in supporting their child. Each parent is responsible for this support, but the parent who is making the most money will usually be called upon to supply the larger financial contribution. Even when a parent decides not to see their child on a regular basis, they are still responsible for paying child support.

Resolving problems

A single mother who has been awarded child support has the right to legally pursue any unpaid support. The local office of child support enforcement can go after unpaid support through a number of methods. These methods can include garnished wages, withdrawing funds from unemployment compensation, or even incarceration. The mother does not have the right to withhold visitation from the father due to unpaid support. A noncustodial parent does not have the right to withhold child support payments over any kind of dispute with the custodial parent, including visitation problems.

Termination of rights

Involuntary termination of parental rights is a very serious step that is only taken when a parent presents a danger to the child. Grounds for termination of parental rights include abuse or neglect, abandonment, substance abuse, failure to support, mental deficiency or illness. If a single mother is in danger of having her parental rights terminated, she may be able to avoid this by placing a child in the care of a relative, depending on the laws in her state.

About the Author

Ann Hudson is a freelance writer who began her writing career working for a small community newspaper. While there, her work as a feature writer and a weekly columnist were honored. Hudson holds a bachelor's degree in journalism. She has been writing for more than 30 years.