Paternity Determinations: Voluntary and Formal Proceedings

When two unmarried persons have a child together, the father has to sign an “Acknowledgment of Paternity” to officially be considered the father of the child, with all the rights, privileges, and obligations associated with such a role. Alternatively, if the father chooses not to sign or is prevented from signing an acknowledgment of paternity, the court can intervene and enter an order establishing paternity – a paternity order basically declares that the child’s father is, in fact, the legal father.

Rights and Obligations of Paternity

Without an official acknowledgment of paternity or paternity order, the child’s father has no obligation to pay child support. This can be extremely financially damaging to a single, unmarried mother, and is perhaps the most common reason for seeking a paternity order. Similarly, if a father wants to have custody – partial, shared, or full – or visitation rights, then he would need to be legally named the father through an acknowledgment of paternity or paternity order.

Voluntary Paternity Proceedings

The establishment of paternity need not always conjure up images of court battles and adversity. A father may be very willing to support a child, but simply wants to ensure that he is indeed the biological parent. He may want a judicial determination before he commits to making child support payments or playing an emotionally committed and supportive role in the child's life.

Other fathers believe they have been unjustly denied knowledge of -- or access to -- children they may have fathered. This may occur following a contentious parting of ways between parents, and the mother may want no further involvement or contact with the father, and might not want the father involved in the child's life.

Finally, some men fear that they may not learn until years later (and perhaps at an inopportune time) that they have fathered a child. To ensure against this, men may wish to voluntarily submit to DNA testing and (in limited circumstances) compel women with whom they have had prior sexual contact to undergo a pregnancy test. This brings closure to the relationship, and gives men the peace of mind of knowing that they won’t be unexpectedly jolted by news of having fathered children unknown to them. It’s important to note that only a man alleging that he is the father of an expected child has legal standing to initiate a paternity action.

Formal Paternity Proceedings

In most states, a paternity action takes the form of a civil lawsuit. Importantly, in most instances, paternity actions must be filed prior to the alleged father's death, to provide for a fair and just defense. In posthumous actions, the alleged father must have affirmatively done something to acknowledge the child prior to death (e.g., putting his name on the child's birth certificate or identifying himself as the father in some other legal or formal action).

Was the Mother Married to Another Person?

Paternity determinations can become a bit complicated when there’s another man in the picture. If the mother was already married, then, there is a legal assumption that the husband is the father. This legal assumption can be invalidated, however, if the alleged father files for a paternity petition and the court determines that this alleged father is the true father.

If the alleged father is the true biological father, then the court will assess the situation as a whole and decide on the best arrangement – for instance, it may be the court’s judgment that the other man be given visitation rights, but not custodial rights so as not to interfere with the proper raising of the child. For these kinds of proceedings, as so much is dependent on the court’s discretion, it’s especially important that you seek the help of a qualified family law attorney.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified family law attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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