Skip to main content
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Paternity Law: Introduction

"Paternity" refers to the establishment of who is the legal father of a child. The identity of a child's biological mother is easy to establish. However, the father's identity may be uncertain. Paternity issues often arise in cases involving the following:

Establishing parentage early in a child's life is important. For example, it can ensure financial support is available to the child.

This paternity law introduction will help you understand the process of establishing paternity. It will also explain the legal significance paternity carries.

Paternity Actions in Court

An action to establish paternity is a civil proceeding in family court. Most states establish the paternity of a child using a "preponderance of the evidence." A preponderance of the evidence means that it must be more likely than not that the man is the father of the child.

Other states, like New York, use "clear and convincing evidence" to establish paternity. This means there must be a high probability the man is the child's father for paternity establishment.

Recent developments in genetic testing have lessened the impact of the different standards.

DNA Testing and Paternity

The advent of DNA profiling was a breakthrough in paternity testing. DNA testing can determine the biological father of the child with over 99% accuracy. It can also be done before the child's birth.

A DNA test uses the child's genetic material inherited from its biological parents. First, the scientist compares the child's genetic material to the biological mother's. The child's characteristics not found in the mother determine the father's genetic characteristics.

Next, the scientist compares the father's characteristics to the alleged father's genetic material. If they don't match, the scientist excludes him as the biological father. But if there's a match, the scientist will calculate the probability of the man's parentage.

A positive test result creates a rebuttable presumption of paternity. The threshold probability to create this presumption varies by state.

How To Establish Paternity

DNA testing is generally done when one party contests the paternity allegations, and the court orders a test. For instance, the putative (or "alleged") father may want proof that he is the child's father before he accepts a support obligation.

In other cases, the mother may contest the putative father's paternity. This may occur when a man attempts to exercise his parental rights, such as gaining custody or visitation rights, with a child he believes is his.

Parents who are in agreement can establish paternity without court action. This can be done by using either a paternity affidavit or a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity. The father's name can then be added to the child's birth certificate.

Many states presume the husband is the father of a baby born to his wife during or shortly after wedlock.

The Effects of Establishing Paternity

Once the state establishes paternity, it may issue a support order for the father to pay child support to the custodial parent.

Unlike for married couples, the paternity of a child born to unmarried parents must be legally established in some cases.

A father who isn't married to the child's mother has legal rights to the child and may request custody and parenting time. The state reviews these requests based on state law. All state laws use the "best interest of the child" standard.

The state always gives preference to the father over third parties such as grandparents or prospective adoptive parents.

Let a Professional Help You With Your Paternity Case

Determining a child's legal father can have a far-reaching impact, especially when it comes to finances and emotions.

You'll likely find yourself in court if you're trying to either prove or disprove paternity. Court proceedings can be a daunting experience. While this paternity law introduction can help you understand the basics, each case is unique. An experienced family law attorney can answer your questions, offer legal advice, and speak for you in a paternity proceeding.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:

Next Steps

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

Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution

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

  • Family law matters are often complex and require a lawyer
  • Lawyers can protect your rights and seek the best outcome

Get tailored family law advice and ask a lawyer questions. Many attorneys offer free consultations.


 If you need an attorney, find one right now.

Copied to clipboard

Find a Lawyer

More Options