Children and Family Law Matters

How is paternity determined? Could a paternity test affect my ability to get custody of my kids?

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 the responsible thing to do for the sake of your 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. 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 through the Division of Child Support Enforcement. 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.

Can I legally adopt my step-child? I'm considering divorce, but I want the legal right to stay in my step-child's life permanently.

This varies from state to state. The definition of an American family has grown to embrace a variety of domestic situations. In some cases, a step-parent is the best choice to fill a void that exists in the family. Although you can develop a close relationship with your step-children through the marriage process, many step-parents choose to legalize the role by becoming an adoptive parent. It's not uncommon. In fact, step-parent adoption is the frontrunner as one of the most common ways to adopt children in America, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Since stepparent adoption laws are governed by the state, it is essential to be fully aware of the regulations in the state of Missouri before proceeding.

In order to start the adoption process, you must submit a petition to the family or juvenile court. Be sure to file the petition in the county in which you reside, where the child was born or where the child is currently living. In Missouri, before a child becomes eligible for adoption, the non-custodial parent must terminate their parental rights to the child. Either the parent can sign a legal waiver, abandoning their rights to the child or the court can determine that the parent is unfit due to neglect, abuse, death or abandonment. If the termination of parental rights is uncontested, then the home study process may be waived. If the home study was not waived by the court, a licensed social worker will conduct a thorough home investigation to determine whether the home is safe for the child to live in. Remember that the entire process is structured to make the best decision for the child. Upon approval, transfer of custody will be granted to the petitioning stepparent. The stepparent must be married to the child's biological parent for at least six months before they will be granted a full adoption.

While you may be content with the current status of your relationship with your step kids, there are several reasons why you may want to legally adopt them. These include the following:

  • Gives a congruency of name, insurance, guardianship, inheritance and all other legal matters.
  • Releases a child from an abusive, non-custodial parental relationship.
  • Provides a sense of emotional belonging and permanence within a child's life.
  • Tears down the barriers between step-siblings, biological siblings and half-siblings, making them all equal in status.
  • If the spouse passes away, you will be named legal guardian of your stepchildren.

Uniting a family through stepparent adoption is easier than you may think. Having a reputable family law attorney on your side to walk you through the process is vital. Attention to detail makes all the difference when dealing with child custody. Partner with someone who knows exactly what must be done to finalize the paperwork and move on with your life. Stepparent adoption can be a lengthy procedure; however, a qualified attorney can help maximize your results and make the process easier for everyone involved.

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Contact a Family Law Attorney Today

If you are going through a family law matter that involves children, the attorneys at Stange Law Firm, PC will be honored to represent you in your case. You can contact us online or by calling at 855-805-0595.