Paternity Law: Introduction

"Paternity" refers to the establishment of 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. Unmarried parents and the state are most often the parties seeking to establish paternity.

Paternity issues often arise in cases involving the following:

Establishing parentage early in a child's life is important. 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. The mother, alleged father, or the state may file the court action after the birth of the child. States set the standard of proof necessary to establish paternity either through state laws or caselaw. In most states, a party must prove the paternity of a child by a "preponderance of the evidence" standard. A preponderance of the evidence means that it must be more likely than not that the man is the father of the child.

Some states, like New York, use the "clear and convincing evidence" standard 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 these different standards.

An unmarried mother may seek to establish paternity so that the child's father shall provide child support. The state may seek to establish paternity when a child's mother is on public assistance. An alleged father may seek to verify paternity so that he can participate in the child's upbringing, including custody, parenting time, and financial support.

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. This provides greater accuracy than blood tests that were used in the past. Genetic testing can even take place before a child's birth.

A DNA test uses the child's genetic material inherited from its biological parents. There are different test methods. In a common testing scenario, the scientist first compares the child's genetic material to that of the biological mother. 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 child support obligation.

In other cases, the mother may contest the putative father's paternity. This may occur when a man claims he is the father of a child. He may be asserting parental rights, such as gaining custody or visitation rights.

Parents who are in agreement can establish paternity without court action. This can be done with 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 or the court establishes paternity, it may issue a support order for the father to pay child support to the custodial parent.

In contrast to married couples, the paternity of a child born to unmarried parents must be legally established. This can occur voluntarily or involuntarily through court action.

An unmarried father who established paternity can also establish additional legal rights related to the child. He may request custody and parenting time. The court reviews these requests based on state law. All state laws use the "best interest of the child" standard.

Courts normally give 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.

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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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