Paternity refers to the determination of what individual is the biological father of a child. Paternity laws can be complex and vary by state. It is important for parties to a paternity case to be familiar with the process so they can prepare to discuss their case with their attorney.
It is generally more challenging to determine the father of a child than it is the mother. Paternity is often an issue in the following types of cases:
- Child support;
- Custody and visitation rights;
- Health care; and/or
- Protecting and asserting parental rights.
Determining the paternity of a child is important for a variety of legal matters involving children. These include:
It is important to note that paternity is not automatically assumed when a couple that is not married has a child. A court must establish paternity prior to issuing any orders concerning the relationship between the child and the father, especially in child support cases.
When possible, if a couple is unmarried, it is important to establish paternity as soon as the child is born. This will protect all parties involved, including the mother, the father, and the child. Once paternity is established, a child can receive benefits, including:
- Child support;
- Life insurance;
- Health insurance; and/or
- Disability benefits.
In most cases, the father will be required to pay child support until the child turns 18 years of age. In some states, the requirement lasts until the child turns 18 and/or graduates from high school. The father will be required to pay child support even if they are not involved in the child’s life.
It is very important that the child receives monetary support from their father. It is also important that the father’s rights are protected. The father should be given the option to petition for visitation and/or custody rights if desired.
There are different legal definitions and categorizations of fathers that vary by state. There are, however, some common definitions, including:
- A putative, or alleged father;
- An unmarried father; and
- A presumed father.
A putative, or alleged, father is typically a man who alleges himself to be the biological father of a child. They have not, however, legally established paternity over a child.
An unmarried father is treated differently legally than a married father in cases of paternity. A state typically defines an unmarried father as a biological father of a child who was not married at the time the child was conceived and/or born.
If a father is unmarried, paternity is not presumed. The father usually must sign an acknowledgment of paternity in order to legally establish their rights as a father. An unmarried father can still have paternity established for them by court ordered genetic testing if they do not voluntarily acknowledge paternity. Once paternity is established by genetic testing, the father will be legally obligated to care for the child, including paying child support.
A presumed father is usually defined as a man who is presumed to be the father of a child due to the circumstances of the case. Situations in which a man is presumed to be the father of a child may include:
- When the child is born during and/or a short time after the end of a marriage;
- When a man acknowledges the paternity of a child voluntarily in an acknowledgement of paternity filed with the court and/or the state bureau of vital statistics. An acknowledgement of paternity may include signing the child’s birth certificate; and/or
- If the individual openly behaves as if he is the father of the child, such as receiving the child in his home when the child is under the age of majority.
Once paternity is established, a father will have the right to child custody and/or visitation rights. If the father is granted custody rights, they will be able to make decisions regarding the upbringing of the child.
It is important to note that establishing paternity also establishes a legal obligation to care for the child. In many cases, alleged fathers often contest paternity due to the great legal responsibilities and obligations.
What Documentation and Questions Should I Gather Before Meeting with a Paternity Lawyer?
It is important to gather any relevant information and documentation prior to a consultation. It is also important to make a list of any questions an individual may have for their attorney regarding their case.
An individual should bring any relevant documentation with them to the consultation. This may include a birth certificate of the child, documents regarding the child, and, in some cases, communications between the alleged father and biological mother. There may be evidence regarding paternity in the communications between the parties, such as if the biological mother mentions another possible father.
It is also important to make a list of any questions an individual may have regarding their case. This may include the legal consequences of acknowledging paternity, consequences of genetic testing, and what will occur if paternity is contested.
What Makes a Paternity Case Strong? What Makes it Weak?
The first step to establishing a strong paternity case is to hire an attorney. An attorney will be able to provide advice regarding the best steps going forward.
If paternity is contested by an alleged father, they will have to rebut the presumption of paternity. In most cases, this will require paternity DNA testing. Current genetic testing can determine paternity with 99.9% accuracy. These tests have become the primary admissible method of establishing and/or challenging paternity in court.
Because current genetic testing is so accurate, DNA tests have become the primary admissible method of establishing or challenging paternity in court. However, presumed fathers are not the most common person to challenge paternity.
In many states, paternity suits are required to be brought within a certain period of time after the birth of the child. In addition, a father seeking to establish paternity must also bring the suit to establish paternity within a certain period of time.
Regardless of which parent brings the paternity suit, the alleged father has the right to contest paternity. These will often require genetic testing.
If genetic testing determines the alleged father is not the biological father of the child, they will have no legal obligations and/or responsibilities involving the child. However, if genetic testing does establish the alleged father as the biological father, they will have legal obligations to care for the child and will not be permitted to contest paternity again.
What are Some Dos and Don’ts for Paternity Cases?
Some “do’s” for paternity cases include:
- Do: Hire an attorney. A paternity suit can have an effect on the rest of an individual’s life. Raising a child is no small matter.
- Do: Be prepared to pay child support. This is often the most difficult part of these cases for potential fathers, especially if they are not financially stable.
- Do: Be respectful to all parties in court. It may be emotionally difficult for the mother to bring this type of claim. She is seeking help raising a child, not to punish the father.
Some “don’ts” for paternity cases include:
- Don’t: Be afraid to contest the paternity suit. If an individual believes they may not be the father, it is perfectly acceptable to contest paternity.
- Don’t: Try to avoid obligations such as child support. The court will simply issue an order deducting child support from any paychecks and/or income taxes you receive.
- Don’t: Be afraid to submit to genetic testing. The process is painless and fairly quick. An individual either is or is not the father, there are no grey areas.
When Do I Need a Lawyer for Paternity Issues?
It is essential to have the help of an experienced family lawyer or father rights attorney for any paternity issues you may be facing. If you are a potential father who wants to petition for rights and/or if a paternity suit has been brought against you, an attorney will help you determine whether or not you are the biological father.
An attorney will explain your rights as the alleged father as well as assist you in filing any paperwork for contesting paternity, if necessary. In addition, an attorney can assist you in obtaining DNA testing.
If you are a mother who is seeking to have paternity established for your child, an attorney can help you during the entire process. No matter when you are in the process, you can seek an attorney’s advice. A lawyer will examine your case, bring a paternity suit, and represent you during any court proceedings, if necessary.