Paternity Suit FAQs

When the presumed father of a child denies he is the father, the child's mother may file a paternity lawsuit. The filing compels the alleged father to submit a DNA test to determine parentage. This opens the door for a child support order and other court orders.

The presumptive father may file a paternity suit to establish his legal rights. As the legal parent, he may ask for child custody and visitation, parenting time, and other rights that an unacknowledged parent would not have.

Below are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about paternity suits.

How Does the Court System Determine Who Is the Father of a Child?

If there is no prior agreement between the parents, then the mother or alleged father can bring a paternity suit. Sometimes the child or a state agency may also want to identify a child's biological father. Paternity actions establish financial responsibility, gain visitation rights, or settle other controversial issues between the parents.

A judge orders a saliva or blood test for DNA testing to determine if the alleged father is the child's biological father. If the test results show the person is the legal father, the case moves forward.

Can Courts Recognize More Than One Father?

Maybe. The courts only recognize one biological father, but that is not the end of the story.

The system could name a man other than the biological father as the father of the child. Family courts realize that there is more to being the parent of the child than genetic testing. A child support and child custody case involves much more than who makes the support payments.

Each state has its own standards for determining paternity. Parents should contact child support services in their state if they need legal advice.

There are different terms for fathers in the legal system. People use these terms interchangeably, but they have specific meanings. A family law attorney can tell you about the differences in these terms if you have a court case.

Acknowledged Father

An acknowledged father is the biological father of a child born to unmarried parents. Another term is "declarant" or "declared" father. The acknowledged father signs an acknowledgment of paternity attached to the child's birth certificate.

Putative Father

The putative or presumed father may be the father but has no legal relationship with the child. The putative father may be the subject of a child support case or may have been unaware of the child's birth and is now seeking a relationship with the child. Courts impute fatherhood in several ways:

  • The parents married before or after the child's birth.
  • The parents attempted to marry before or after the child's birth, but the marriage was void.
  • The parents agreed to put the putative father's name on the birth certificate.
  • He took the child into his home and has a parent-child relationship with the child.

Equitable Father

A non-biological father is sometimes called an "equitable father." This is a legal claim recognized in some states. An unrelated adult has a close relationship with the child, encouraged by the biological parents. In states which recognize this relationship, the equitable father may receive the same custody rights as the biological father.

This often happens in divorce proceedings where a child may have a closer relationship with a stepparent than a biological parent.

Parenting Issues

Putative fathers have fewer rights to their children than married parents or unmarried couples who have established paternity. Putative fathers should acknowledge paternity after the child's birth as soon as possible. The father can sign the voluntary acknowledgment immediately with the mother's consent.

There is no deadline for filing for paternity. An individual can file for paternity up to three years after a child turns 18 in some states. However, once established, paternity is very difficult to overturn. Courts will always put the best interests of the child ahead of other concerns. If another man has stepped in to accept responsibility for raising the child, the courts will not set that aside, even for the biological father of the child.

If all parties agree, filing the paternity forms and affidavits immediately is in everyone's best interests.

Is the Legal Father Responsible for Child Support? How Do I Get It From Him?

The biological father must pay child support according to state guidelines. A family law court will issue a child support order setting the amount the father must pay. If the father has filed for custody or visitation, it is in the order.

If the father refuses or does not pay the full amount, state child support services may use other methods, such as wage garnishment, to collect the child support. Ultimately, the state will sue the father on the mother's behalf for any Social Security or public assistance benefits she needed while raising the child alone.

If I Helped Raise a Child and Later Discovered They Weren't Mine, Can I Sue the Mother?

At present, paternity fraud — lying about someone being the father of a child — is not a crime in the United States. It is possible to sue the mother for child support payments on the grounds of fraud, but these are difficult cases to win.

A DNA test is not enough to overturn a paternity order. The courts require proof of intent to defraud on the part of the mother. Also, the courts are acting in the best interests of the child. They will not remove a child's financial support without more cause.

What if I Can't Afford to File a Lawsuit for Paternity?

The fees and costs of a paternity suit are high. The plaintiff may need to pay for the genetic testing. Low-income mothers trying to get a DNA test for child support cases may qualify for fee waivers or other financial help.

The state departments of health and human services (DHS) may provide help with DNA testing. The county legal services agency can assist you with these programs.

Get Professional Legal Help With Your Paternity Suit

Courts take parental rights seriously. Paternity suits can impact a father's ability to make decisions for his child and his ability to pay child support. These cases also affect inheritance rights. They make a huge difference in the well-being of the children involved.

Paternity suits are grueling, confusing, and emotional. Get experienced guidance from a family law attorney in your area.

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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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