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Paternity Determination: Voluntary and Formal Proceedings

When a child is born to a married couple, there's a legal presumption that the husband is the child's father. But, there's no such presumption when two unmarried people have a child together. In this situation, paternity must be established either voluntarily by the father or through formal paternity proceedings.

When parents are unmarried, the father can voluntarily sign an "acknowledgment of paternity" to legally establish him as the child's father, which will guarantee him 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, which basically declares that the child's father is, in fact, the legal father.

Read on to learn more about paternity determinations through the voluntary process and through formal proceedings.

Rights and Obligations of Paternity

Establishing paternity comes with a variety of rights and obligations. Without an official acknowledgment of paternity or paternity order, the child's father isn't legally obligated 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 or visitation rights, then he would need to be legally named the father through an acknowledgment of paternity or paternity order.

Voluntary Paternity Determination

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 not want 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've 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's the father of an expected child has legal standing to initiate a paternity action.

Paternity Determination: Formal 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 in order to provide the alleged father 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).

How Marriage Affect a Paternity Determination

A paternity determination can become a bit complicated when there's another man in the picture. As previously mentioned, if the mother is married, then there's a legal presumption that the mother's husband is the father of her child. This legal presumption can be invalidated, however, if another man files a paternity petition and the court determines that this man is the true biological father.

In a situation where a man other than the mother's husband is determined to be the father of her child, it's in the court's discretion to determine the best arrangement for custody and support. 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 disrupt the family home of the child.

Learn More About Paternity Determination from a Lawyer

Whether it's through voluntary paternity or formal paternity proceedings, legally establishing a child's father is an important act for the mother, father, and child involved. If you have any questions about paternity determination - or would like help with the process of establishing paternity - it's best to consult with a qualified family law attorney near you today.

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