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Establishing Paternity in Court

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Establishing Paternity: What Is Paternity?

"Paternity" is a legal for determining the father of a child. The identity of a child's biological mother is easy to establish, but the father's identity can be difficult in some cases. Paternity issues often arise in cases involving child support, but they can also be important for:

Paternity is not automatically presumed when unmarried couples have a child. The court must establish paternity before it can issue a child support order.

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. Paternity is also important for child custody and visitation rights. A child can also receive the following benefits once paternity is established:

  • Child support
  • Health disability
  • Life insurance

Once paternity is established, the father will need to provide child support until the child reaches the age of 18. The father of the child will have to provide child support even if he is not in the child's life. This is why it is important to determine the father’s paternity to obtained financial support.

How Can I Establish Paternity in Court?

To establish paternity, you must go through a civil proceeding. In most states, paternity is established by a "preponderance of the evidence." This 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, the different standards are rarely used because courts rely on paternity tests.

Paternity can be established in several ways:

  • DNA testing: This 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
  • Birth Certificates: Acknowledging paternity by placing the father’s name on the child’s birth certificate.
  • Legal Declaration: You can file a complaint with the court for the judge to look at the DNA test. The court can issue a paternity order based on circumstantial evidence and the DNA test
  • Circumstantial Evidence: Paternity can be established when a man 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.

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. The court cannot order child support until paternity is determined.  Once the court has legally determined the father’s identity, the court can order child support payment no matter where the father lives. This includes the father living in a different state of the child.

Should I Consult an Attorney About Establishing Paternity?

Yes. Paternity issues can have far-reaching effects, both financially and emotionally. A family law attorney can help explain the law and assert your rights.

Photo of page author Jessica Tran

, LegalMatch Legal Writer

Last Modified: 07-20-2015 10:13 AM PDT

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