Custody and visitation rights are a common area of concern for divorcing fathers or those who have fathered children outside of marriage and want to continue the relationship with the child. While they are very closely intertwined, custody and visitation are really two separate issues. Understanding what your rights are as a father in these cases is the first step toward getting a court order established.
First of all, it's important to understand that in cases where the parents have not been married and the mother has been the primary caretaker of the child, it can be extremely difficult for a father to get sole custody of the child. Even joint custody — also referred to as shared parenting — can be an uphill battle. To change this kind of custody arrangement, the father will generally need to show that the mother is not caring for the child properly or that the child's best interests would be better served with the father as the primary custodian.
However, in the event that this is not the case, it is still very possible and likely for a father to get court-ordered visitation rights. Because the courts generally assume that it is in the best interests of the child to have frequent and recurrent access to both parents, they are far more likely to grant a visitation petition in most cases.
Some exceptions to this include where the father has a past history of domestic violence, sex crimes convictions or is currently dealing with a substance abuse issue. Even in these situations, it may be possible to ask the courts for supervised visits.
Source: FindLaw, "Child Visitation, Child Custody and Unmarried Fathers," accessed Jan. 01, 2016