Proving paternity is process that establishes a person’s legal fatherhood, and the outcome has a significant impact on a man’s legal rights and responsibilities from child support to visitation. While paternity laws vary from state to state, there are a few common ways that most jurisdictions use to establish it. Here is a short guide to establishing paternity and what you need to know about the process. 

How Do Married Couples Establish Paternity?

Establishing paternity for married couples is usually straightforward and relatively easy. In most places, if a child is born to a married couple, the presumption is that the husband is the biological father unless there is overriding proof that he is not, and no other legal steps need to be taken after the birth certificate is signed. 

There are cases, however, where a man may question the child’s paternity after the fact. In these circumstances the presumed father must establish via DNA test that he is not the genetic father and file a suit to legally dissolve the parent-child relationship.

How Do Unmarried Couples Establish Paternity?

For unmarried couples, establishing paternity takes a more involved legal process. The first way is to sign and file what is called an Acknowledgement of Paternity form, where the father voluntarily admits that he is the child’s father and thus assumes all the rights and responsibilities that come with the role. If the man chooses to do this, he must fill out and sign the form before his name can be added to the birth certificate. 

The other way is through the courts. A paternity lawsuit claims that the man in question is the biological father and that it can be proven through a DNA test. If the test establishes a genetic link with the child, the court then legally acknowledges the person as the father for the purpose of child support and other issues.

Who Can File a Paternity Suit?

While such lawsuits are commonly brought by the mother on behalf of the child, there are other parties that may have the ability, known legally as “standing,” to file a paternity suit as well. In the same vein, a man claiming to be a child’s biological father also has the right to bring a complaint. 

If the are unmarried, both the mother and the father can bring a joint suit if there are impediments to legally acknowledging paternity, but this is not as common. There are also circumstances where the government bring these suits. 

If a state agency is intervening on behalf of a child based on neglect or other child needs issues, they will also have standing to file a suit in the appropriate court. Common agencies include Child Protective Services looking into neglect or abuse, or the Attorney General for child support purposes. 

When Should I File a Paternity Suit?

In most states, a child needs to be born before someone can bring a paternity suit before the courts. But with the advancements in DNA technology, some jurisdictions are beginning to allow prenatal DNA tests as evidence to establish paternity for legal purposes. But what about the father? In most cases, states will require that the alleged father be alive for a paternity suit to be filed. 

This is to give the man the proper opportunity to participate in the action and present their defense if they so choose. There are a few rare instances where the alleged father dies before or during the suit and the case can proceed. 

If the man wrote his name on the child’s birth certificate, openly treated the child as his own, or made other convincing affirmative actions indicating fatherhood, a judge may still hear the case. This can have a significant impact on inheritance rights.

How Do I File A Paternity Suit?

A paternity suit is a civil action and thus follows most of the same steps. First, find out which court is the right one to preside over the paternity proceedings. Legally, this is known as the proper jurisdiction. You then need to fill out the forms required by that particular court, often called a “Complaint for Determination of Paternity” or a “Petition for Paternity”. 

Some states and counties now make most of these available on their websites, but the best idea is to contact an experienced local family lawyer to help you with the petition and any supporting evidence. 

After you file your petition and it is accepted by the court, you must provide the other party with a copy of the complaint and court summons to make them aware of an impending hearing on the matter. This is known as “serving notice” and it is a vital part of making sure the case proceeds. Failure to properly serve notice on the other party can result in the entire lawsuit being dismissed.

Do I Need a Lawyer If I Have Issues with a Child’s Paternity?

Just like with any other legal matter, you need to follow the procedures and submit all the proper forms to prove paternity. This requires a lot of paperwork and can be complex. It is important to seek help from a local family attorney to guide you through the process and represent your rights both in and out of the courtroom.