Paternity is the legal acknowledgement of the relationship between a father and his child. A determination of paternity provides the child of unmarried parents with certain legal rights and benefits afforded to children whose parents are married.
If a married woman gives birth to a child, the law presumes that husband of the child's mother is the father of the child. When an unmarried woman gives birth to a child, the mother or child must establish paternity. In most states, the mother or child may establish paternity before birth or at any time before the child turns 18. They can establish paternity in one of several ways:
- Voluntary Acknowledgment. If a mother and father agree on the paternity of their child, both parents may sign an affidavit establishing paternity. The affidavit may be completed immediately following the birth or at a later time. Once the affidavit is processed, the father's name will be added to the child's birth certificate.
- Court Determination. A parent may petition the court for an establishment of paternity. Parties to a paternity proceeding have the right to testify, cross-examine witnesses and submit evidence to the court. A court may consider a number of factors in making a determination of paternity, including the sexual relationship between the mother and the potential father, details surrounding the time and date of conception, and results of genetic testing. If a judge is convinced paternity has been proven, the judge will assign legal paternity to the father.
- Genetic Testing. Genetic tests, known as paternity tests, are used to ascertain the biological relationship between a child and a potential father. A paternity test examines DNA found in the blood or saliva of the mother, child, and potential father. Paternity will be established if it is more probable than not that the child's DNA is derived from the DNA of the potential father. Those who wish to take part in genetic testing should contact their state child support agency. Most child support agencies pay for paternity tests until the identity of the father is established. Once paternity is established, the father may be required to pay for all or part of the testing costs.
- Estoppel. In some states, an individual may establish paternity by holding himself out to be the parent of a child, and providing continuous financial and emotional support for that child.
The science of paternity testing has evolved to a stage where these techniques can determine which man has fathered a child with virtually perfect accuracy. In most circumstances, a court will respond to a positive result in a paternity test by declaring that the man is the child’s father and ordering that man to pay child support.
Why Establish Paternity?
There are many benefits to establishing paternity. First, a finding of paternity may increase a child's standard of living. A court will not order child support payments from a father unless paternity is established. Additionally, paternity may allow a child to benefit from a parent's medical insurance coverage, as well as government programs such as social security, disability and veterans payments. The child may also have the benefit of a future inheritance. In some cases, a determination of paternity may save a child's life. Paternity provides doctors with access to a child's full family medical history, which may be vital in a medical emergency or in taking preventative steps to avoid a particular medical condition. A finding of paternity can also benefit a father. While a determination of paternity increases parental obligations, it also allows fathers to have visitation rights and become involved in their children's lives. Finally, if the child was born out of wedlock overseas to a noncitizen mother and a citizen father, the United States will grant citizenship to the child if the citizen father establishes paternity before the child turns 18.
Putative Father Registries
Many states maintain a putative father registry (also known as a “paternity registry,” “parental claim registrar,” or similar), which unmarried men can use to document through a notary public any women with whom they have had sexual relations, for the purpose of retaining parental rights for any child they may father. Inclusion in a registry does not typically guarantee the man any rights to the child except the right to notification upon commencement of an adoption proceeding for the child, and even then he is guaranteed only the right to appear in court to testify about the child’s best interests.