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Legal Significance of Paternity

Paternity is the legal establishment of the identity of a child's father. Contrary to common belief, when a person's name is indicated on a child's birth certificate as the father, this doesn't establish paternity. In fact, a mother may list anyone whom they believe is, or wants to be, the father. Paternity can also be established without a DNA test.

Read on to learn more about the processes for establishing paternity and the legal significance of paternity for parents and children.

Voluntarily Assumed Paternity

Paternity can be voluntarily assumed in a variety of circumstances, such as when:

  • The child is born to a married couple
  • The child is born to an unmarried couple but the parents marry after the child is born and sign a legitimation form
  • The child is born to an unmarried couple who never marry but sign a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity or a similar agreement drafted by an attorney
  • The father attempts to marry the mother when the child was born or conceived
  • The father and child have a close parent/child relationship and the court grants equitable parent custody rights

Because paternity is not determined solely by a birth certificate or a blood test, a father who is not married to their child's mother needs to acknowledge their paternity voluntarily. Otherwise, the father may lose their rights to someone else who makes the effort to become the child's presumed father.

Involuntary Paternity

Paternity can also be established involuntarily, such as when the mother brings a paternity lawsuit against the probable father. This can also occur when the state brings the same lawsuit if the government provides public assistance to the mother. The probable father will be required to appear in court and may need to submit to DNA testing. Genetic saliva or blood tests can establish paternity with 99 percent accuracy. If paternity is established, the court will enter an order regarding the father's paternity, and the father will be required to pay child support.

Legal Significance of a Paternity Determination

Whether paternity is established voluntarily or involuntarily, it has several important legal consequences.

For the Father

A person who is legally established to be a child's father is held accountable for their share of support and responsibility. If the father is unwilling to support the child voluntarily, they can be compelled to do so after a successful paternity suit. If the child was born out of wedlock and the mother wishes to give the child up for adoption, the mother will be unable to do so when the father asserts paternity and refuses to consent. A father claiming paternity also gains custody and visitation rights to the child.

For the Mother

For a mother, paternity determinations secure financial support from the father. The mother may also be required to share custody with the father or allow for visitation time.

For the Child

For a child, the legal significance of paternity is the establishment of financial support. The child gains the following rights from their father:

  • To receive shelter and aid
  • To inherit assets
  • To access personal information about the known health risks and profiles of the paternal family
  • To sue for harm or death of the father that results in loss to the child

A child for whom parentage has been established may also be eligible to receive workers' compensation benefits resulting from the father's death or other dependent-based governmental assistance.

What's the Legal Significance of Paternity in Your Life? Talk to an Attorney

Establishing paternity is the first step in determining a father's legal obligations. Whether you're trying to establish paternity or whether you think you have no legal obligations to a child, it's important to speak with a family law attorney to learn more about the laws in your state.

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