Legal Significance of Paternity

Paternity is the establishment of the identity of a child's legal father. Contrary to common belief, paternity isn't established when a person's name is indicated on a child's birth certificate as the father. A mother may submit the name of anyone whom she believes is, or wants to be, the father on the child's birth certificate.

In most circumstances, when a married couple has a child, there is a legal presumption that the husband is the father of the child. When an unmarried woman has a child, there is no presumption of paternity and further action must be taken to establish paternity.

With unmarried parents, the parties can voluntarily sign an acknowledgment of paternity affidavit to establish paternity. A man who signs an acknowledgment of paternity affidavit may not be the biological father of the child. Once the acknowledgment is finalized and filed, however, he has become the legal father. Unmarried parents can also file a paternity action to establish paternity. This latter method most often requires a DNA test.

States recognize many ways for paternity establishment. Read on to learn more about the processes for establishing paternity and the legal significance of paternity for parents and children.

Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity

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

  • The child is born to a married couple who become the parents of the child.
  • The child is born to an unmarried couple, but the parents marry after the child is born and sign a legitimation form.
  • 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.
  • The child is born to an unmarried couple who never marry but sign a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity affidavit or a similar agreement drafted by an attorney. The affidavit is then filed with the designated state agency and the court as appropriate.
  • Both mother and alleged father agree to confirm paternity by a DNA blood test. This may occur through the child support services agency, private counsel, or a paternity court proceeding.

A man who believes he is the father of a child and is not married to the child's mother should take action to establish paternity. Otherwise, he may lose parental rights to someone else who makes the effort to establish paternity as the child's legal father.

Involuntary Determination of Paternity

Paternity can also be established involuntarily, such as when the mother brings a paternity lawsuit against the putative or presumed father. The State or the alleged father can bring the same lawsuit. The State will commonly file a paternity case if the government provides public assistance to the mother. This could be cash benefits (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF) or health insurance (Medicaid). A paternity case can also be called a parentage case.

Each state law may vary on the specific procedure for filing the paternity case. Generally, the parents will appear in court in response to the lawsuit. The court can order the alleged father to submit to DNA testing. It can also order the child's mother present the child for DNA testing. Genetic saliva or blood tests can establish paternity with 99 percent accuracy. The parties and the court will review the results of the paternity test. If paternity is established, the court will enter an order regarding the father's paternity, and the father may be required to pay child support. The court order will also direct the state agency for vital statistics to add the father's name to the child's birth certificate.

Many courts today may provide resources or devote website pages to explaining the processing for establishing paternity in their jurisdiction. For example, the New York City Family Court provides an informative frequently asked questions page on paternity. You may find it helpful to look for similar resources in your area.

Legal Significance of a Paternity Determination

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

The father:

  • Is responsible for their share of child support, medical support, and other expenses for the child
  • Must be notified and, in most circumstances, grant consent for any adoption of the child that would terminate his parental rights
  • May file to establish parental rights, e.g. sole or joint child custody, parenting time, or visitation rights
  • Must be notified and, in most circumstances, grant consent for the issuance of a passport or visa for the child
  • May seek to add the child as a dependent on the father's health insurance
  • May seek to add the child as an heir to his estate and a beneficiary to other assets of the father
  • May claim the child, with court approval, as a dependent for tax purposes

The mother:

  • Provides for shared financial support from the father, e.g. child support, medical support, and other expenses of the child
  • Provides for formal agreements or court determinations for sole or shared custody and parenting time
  • May seek to add the child as a dependent on the father's health insurance or work out a health insurance arrangement with the father for the child

The child:

  • Has the ability to receive shelter and financial support from both parents throughout their childhood
  • Has the provision of inheritance rights for both parents
  • Has the right to access personal information about the known health risks and profiles (medical history) of the father's family
  • Has the ability to sue for harm or death of the father that results in a loss to the child
  • Has the ability to receive social security and/or veteran's benefits as a dependent of the father
  • Has the ability to receive workers' compensation benefits, resulting from the father's death or other dependent-based governmental assistance

What's the Legal Significance of Paternity?

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Fatherhood can be a very demanding and rewarding experience for most men. Establishing paternity is the first step in determining a father's legal rights and responsibilities towards their child.

Do you want to establish paternity? Are you willing to submit to genetic testing to confirm paternity? To better understand the legal process, you can seek legal advice. You should consider speaking to a family law attorney to learn how the paternity laws in your state may apply to your situation.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • You can represent yourself in a paternity case, but establishing paternity can be emotionally and legally complex
  • Lawyers can help you understand your rights and responsibilities

An attorney can explain the legal procedures and consequences of establishing paternity. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

If you are in the midst of a paternity case, it may be an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and provide for your children. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

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