Zaunegger v. Germany  | 2009

Improved custody rights for fathers of children born out of marriage

It is a great satisfaction for me that this great suffering and the powerlessness that I have felt for years, now lie behind me.

Horst Zaunegger, reported by the German Press Agency, quoted by Süddeutsche Zeitung


Horst Zaunegger had a daughter. He was not married to the mother. When the couple separated, Horst was refused joint custody of their child. This was because, as the couple had not been married, joint custody could only be granted if the mother agreed to it, or if the child’s well-being was threatened.

Horst applied to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the law amounted to unjustified discrimination and breached his right to family life.

Judgment of the European Court of Human Rights

The European court noted that, when a married couple separated in Germany, the father did not require the mother’s permission to be awarded joint custody of children. This meant that the law unfairly discriminated against fathers of children born out of marriage, compared to fathers of children born within marriage – in breach of Horst Zaunegger’s basic rights.


In 2013 the law in Germany was changed so that, if a parent of a child born out of marriage applies for joint custody, this will be granted so long as it is not against the child’s best interests.