Legal parentage is a term used in family law that refers to the process of determining a child’s legal parents. Historically, this process was typically found in paternity cases where the child’s biological parents were not married, but for various reasons, the identity of the father had to be established. 

In 1973, Congress introduced the Uniform Parentage Act (UPA), which created a framework to govern cases involving parentage, for both married and unmarried couples. Every state has adopted some form of the act, which courts follow when they encounter cases that concern establishing parentage. 

The UPA was updated most recently in 2017 to reflect many new changes in society, such as reproductive technology. Thus, now, determining parentage may include:

  • Biological Parents (both mothers and fathers);
  • Nonbiological Parents (usually, means parents who legally adopt a child); 
  • Legal Guardians (recognized as parents through some type of court process); and even
  • Surrogate Mothers.

As of 2017, the UPA was also amended to recognize same-sex parents, as well as de facto parents. A de facto parent is someone who may not be biologically related to the child, but has provided basic needs or cares regularly for the child. Additionally, a de facto parent may just be an individual who developed a parent-like bond with the child and interacts with them daily. 

Why is Knowing Legal Parentage Important?

Knowing who a child’s parents are is extremely important, especially in a legal setting. Not knowing, can complicate many of the complex issues that arise in family law cases, such as:

In fact, legal parentage often must be formally established before the family law court can proceed with these other family law matters.

How is Parentage Established?

There are many ways to determine parentage. For example, the process can involve a medical procedure, such as taking a DNA test, or something as simple as conducting a search for a birth certificate. Parentage procedures may vary on a case by case basis. 

If the parents of a child are married at the time of a child’s birth, the court will normally assume that the father is the child’s natural, biological father. Accordingly, they will possess the usual parental rights, unless the father’s paternity is challenged and a different outcome results.

In other instances, parentage can be verified by two primary methods:

  • By signing a voluntary declaration of paternity or parentage, however, this may still require some proof and support demonstrating paternity, e.g., identification or medical testing; or
  • Obtaining a court order that states the formal parentage and custody of the child.

Additionally, there are some cases where parentage can be presumed based on certain factors or actions that were presented by the father. 

For example, if the person agreed to have their name put on the child’s birth certificate, courts may “presume” that the person is the father of that child. Note, however, that this scenario might have different results, depending on the facts of the case.

What Are the Rights and Responsibilities Associated with Parentage?

If a person accepts parentage or paternity, they will also assume various rights and responsibilities, along with their parentage status, which are connected to the child. 

Some of these parental rights and responsibilities include:

  • Providing financial support for the child;
  • Assuming responsibility for certain juvenile crimes committed by the child;
  • Obtaining legal documentation that identifies this person as a parent of the child;
  • Having access to the child’s medical records and medical history;
  • Permitting their health or medical insurance coverage to extend to the child;
  • Deciding on the educational and spiritual upbringing of the child;
  • Passing on property to the child through inheritance laws; and
  • Giving consent on whether the child can be adopted.

Failure to accept or perform one’s parentage rights and responsibilities can lead to legal consequences that may range from minor to serious. These can include court fines, orders of contempt, and possibly criminal charges. 

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Parentage Legal Issues?

Parentage is considered a major issue in family law, which means that family law courts handle these types of cases and matters very thoroughly. Therefore, if you need assistance with a parentage issue, it is in your best interest to hire an experienced family law attorney.

A local family lawyer can research and assess the relevant laws that apply in your state. They can help you determine what rights you may have and the options that are available in regard to your parentage issue.

Also, if you want to bring a parentage action, a lawyer can file a claim in court that establishes or challenges any parentage issues that you may be facing. 

Finally, a lawyer can guide you through any of the above processes, address any questions or concerns you might have, provide representation in court, and most importantly, assist you to protect your interests.