Paternity Actions

Paternity is a legal term that means fatherhood. In many states, if parents are married, the husband is automatically considered to be the father of a child born during the marriage. But, children whose parents are not married have no legal father unless the parents establish paternity. Around 40 percent of children in the United States are born out-of-wedlock, and in most cases these children are just as loved, well adjusted and healthy as those born to married parents. Yet, they do face one challenge that children with married parents do not: there are significant disadvantages to lacking an official paternity designation.

Establishing paternity is almost always in the best interests of a child. For one thing, children often receive different kinds of benefits from one or both parents. These benefits may include health and life insurance, the right to an inheritance, Social Security benefits, and, for those children who have had a parent in the military, veteran's benefits. Typically, paternity must be established in order for a child to receive these benefits from his or her father. Another major advantage of establishing paternity for a child is the right it gives him or her to financial support from the father: unless paternity is established, the father is not legally obligated to provide support. Even if the natural father of a child is presently forthcoming with support, securing the child's legal right to future support can be extremely important should circumstances change. There are also medical reasons to establish paternity. Doctors need to be aware of the father's medical history to properly gauge the inherited conditions that may affect a child's health. In addition, health problems may cause a child to need blood transfusions or tissue transplants from a compatible donor; knowing the identity of the father with certainty is important in order to find compatible relatives, especially for children with rare blood or tissue types. Finally, establishing paternity can benefit children emotionally. Knowing who both their parents are can help give kids a sense of identity and belonging. Furthermore, fathers who are involved in their children's lives often have a huge positive impact on school performance, behavior and other measures of a child's wellbeing - officially establishing paternity can help foster meaningful father-child relationships.

The simplest way for unmarried parents to establish paternity in many states is for both of them to sign an affidavit acknowledging paternity. Ideally, this legal form is completed at the hospital when the baby is born: if both parents complete this legal form before the hospital files the child's birth certificate, the man officially becomes the child's legal father, and his name is added to the birth certificate. If the parents miss their window at the hospital, an Affidavit Acknowledging Paternity can be completed later by contacting the Bureau of Vital Records or the Family Support Division - Child Support Enforcement (FSD-CSE).

If the mother and the man who believes he is the child's father are not both completely certain who the biological father is, an Affidavit Acknowledging Paternity should not be immediately filed and a genetic test should be performed. Genetic testing is relatively simple and uninvasive: a tissue sample is collected from the mother, the child and the alleged father (usually by swabbing the inside of the cheeks) and shipped to a lab for analysis. If the tests reveal at least a 98 percent probability that that man is the father, he is presumed to be the father.

Of course, for one reason or another, sometimes either the mother or father does not agree to establish paternity. When paternity is contested, it is always advisable that the parties involved seek the services of a qualified paternity determination attorney. The mother, the alleged father or the child's custodian may request an order for DNA paternity testing. The FSD-CSE or a court can order genetic testing. Once the test results arrive, the court or the FSD-CSE may enter an order establishing paternity - the consent of the parents is not required for these paternity orders.

Establishing paternity is almost always the responsible thing to do for the sake of a child. But, fathers and mothers may have their own individual reasons as well. For mothers, it often means getting the support they need to effectively raise their child. For fathers, it could be an avenue to secure more frequent and meaningful contact with their children - or, at the other end of the spectrum, an effort to disprove biological relation to a child and avoid the accompanying obligations.

Contrary to popular belief, simply being on a birth certificate does not give a father an enforceable custody order in the majority of circumstances. If a father does not file a paternity case, a common scenario is where there is an administrative child support order put in effect against the father. Yet, while paying child support, the father still has no child custody schedule and right to see his child or be an equal decision-maker. If unmarried men fail to establish their rights, courts also have the discretion to award five years back child support.