Establishing Paternity in Court

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What Is Paternity?

"Paternity" refers to the legal establishment of who is the father of a child. While the identity of a child's biological mother is usually by nature easy to establish, the father's identity may in some cases be uncertain. Paternity issues often arise in cases involving child support, but they can also be important in relation to adoption, inheritance, custody and visitation, health care, and other issues. 

Men are not automatically presumed to be the child’s father when unmarried couples have a child and paternity must be established in order for the court to issue paternity and order the man to pay child support.

Why Is Establishing Paternity Important?

When an unmarried couple have a child, it is important that the father’s paternity be determined right after the baby is born. Establishing the father’s paternity protects the child, the mother, and the father as well in cases where child custody and visitation rights are being determined. The child will also be able to receive benefits from the established father including things like child support, health disability, and life insurance benefits.

Since parents are required to provide the child with support until the child is the age of 18, even if the father does not want to be in the child’s life, the father is required to pay for child support until the child has reached the age of 18. This is why it is important to determine the father’s paternity to obtained financial support.

How Can I Establish Paternity in Court?

An action to establish paternity is a civil proceeding. Most states require that paternity be established by a "preponderance of the evidence," which means that it must be more likely than not that the man is the father of the child. Other states, like New York, apply a higher standard, requiring clear and convincing evidence of paternity. In reality, however, the different standards have little practical impact in light of recent developments in scientific developments, such as a paternity test

Paternity can be established in several ways:

  1. DNA testing is generally done only when one party contests the paternity allegations. A lab will gather genetic samples from the child, mother, and the man who the paternity is questionable.
  2. Establish paternity by placing the father’s name on the child’s birth certificate acknowledging paternity.
  3. Prove to the paternity through legal declaration.
  4. File a complaint with the court for the judge to look at the DNA test along with other circumstantial evidence to determine whether the father is the child’s biological father and issue a paternity order.
  5. Paternity may also be established by circumstantial evidence, such as when a man takes the child into his home and holds the child out to the public as his own. A married man is presumed to be the father of a baby born to his wife during their marriage.

Once paternity is established, the father may be ordered to pay child support for his child. A father who is not married to the child's mother generally will not be awarded custody of the child if the mother is providing reasonable care, but he may receive preference over third parties, such as grandparents or prospective adoptive parents.

Can I receive Child Support If Paternity Is Not Established?

No. The father’s paternity must be established before a child can receive child support. This is mainly because the child’s father must be legally determined in order for the child support to be ordered by the court compelling the father to have the legal duty to pay. Once the court has legally determined the father’s identity, the court may order the father to pay child support no matter where the father lives even if he lives in a different state of the child.

Should I Consult an Attorney About Establishing Paternity?

Paternity issues, like most family law issues, can have far-reaching implications, both financially and emotionally. When faced with these issues, it is important to seek the counsel of  family law attorney who can help explain the law and assert your rights.

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Last Modified: 08-20-2014 12:54 PM PDT

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