When there are legal disputes over child custody and/or divorce, courts will often award child support payments. The non-custodial parent will generally be ordered to make payments to the custodial parent in order to help with expenses related to raising their child. While this usually only applies to the child’s biological parents, sometimes a person can be ordered to pay child support for a non-biological child.

Biological paternity simply refers to someone who is the biological parent of a child. On the other hand, legal paternity refers to someone who is legally recognized as the child’s parent and therefore has parental rights like a biological parent would have. This includes adoptive parents and legal guardians. It is important to understand the concept of legal paternity and how it can impact child support proceedings.

What Are Some Important Things About Legal Paternity?

Besides situations of voluntary legal paternity, like adoptive parents and legal guardians, there are some situations when a person who is not a biological parent is presumed to have legal paternity. For example, you may be presumed to be a child’s legal father when:

  • You are married to the child’s mother at the time the baby was conceived or born;
  • You sign the child’s birth certificate as their father, even if you know you are not the biological father; and
  • You fill out a legal acknowledgement of paternity form.

You should also keep in mind that there are situations where a biological parent does not have parental rights because these rights were legally terminated. One situation could be where the parent is not involved and a stepparent decides to adopt the child. The court would terminate the biological parent’s rights and grant those parental rights to the child’s stepparent instead.

Regardless, once you establish legal paternity, in the eyes of the law you will carry all of the rights and responsibilities associated with being a parent. Additionally, after a person acknowledges paternity many states will provide a two year limitation to contest or dispute paternity. However, some provide a shorter amount of time so knowing your state’s laws and procedures if you are faced with this issue is crucial.

How Does Child Support Factor Into the Legal Parent/Non-Biological Child Relationship?

In family court proceedings, the judge will always base their decisions on what is in the best interests of the child. That is why these matters are fact driven and will vary. Most states will recognize the importance of a parent-child relationship even when biological paternity is not involved. Because of this, a legal parent who is not biologically related to the child but has played a big role in the child’s life may be responsible for child support if divorce or separation happens in the future. Other terms for this are “equitable paternity” and “parentage by estoppel”.

This also broadens the scenarios of when someone can be considered a legal/equitable parent. If you and the other parent had a close familial relationship where you parented the child and lived in the home, you may be considered an equitable parent. Additionally, if you held the child out as being your own then you may be considered an equitable parent.

Again, this will vary between the states and depend on the circumstances of your relationship with the child. However, a court could deem you to be a legal parent in these circumstances or any of the others discussed above, which could make you responsible for future child support payments.

Can The Courts Enforce Child Support Payments for Non-Biological Parents?

As noted above, a family court can order a non-biological parent to pay child support in certain situations. The person will need to be a legal or equitable parent. Look to your state’s child support guidelines for more information about when this could apply. Some factors that could weigh into this decision include the following:

  • You financially supported the child for a significant amount of time;
  • You emotionally supported the child for a significant amount of time;
  • You lived with the child and other parent; and
  • You helped make important parenting decisions, like where the child would go to school or what medical treatment the child would receive.

All of this could support a case for equitable paternity if you are not a biological or legal parent of the child. This can make it difficult to avoid child support payments mandated by court order. However, keep in mind that this will also support a case for you to have custody rights over the child, which means you could fight for shared custody or visitation rights.

You can also attempt to establish someone else’s biological paternity as a defense to making these payments. However, say you acted as a father figure to a child by exhibiting all or some of the traits discussed above. Even if you track down the biological father, if they were never involved in the child’s life then the court may still order you to make the child support payments if you separate from the mother.

Should I Hire a Lawyer For My Child Support Issue?

Child support and custody issues can be complicated and argumentative. A child support lawyer in your area can help if you are dealing with these issues. An experienced lawyer will be able to thoroughly evaluate your situation and explain why you could face child support payments for a non-biological child. A lawyer can also help you fight for shared custody or visitation rights if that is something that you want.