When a child is born to a married couple, a legal presumption arises that the husband is the child’s father. The same is not true with unmarried couples. Establishing paternity is important for unmarried couples in the event that their relationship does not continue and a parent seeks custody or child support, for inheritance purposes or for a variety of other reasons.
If the parents marry after the mother becomes pregnant but before the birth, the husband’s paternity is presumed in the same manner as if the parents were married at the time of conception. If the parents marry after the child is born, they can sign a legitimation form, which grants the same rights as if the parents were married at the time of birth.
Even if parents never marry, paternity can be established voluntarily when the parents are certain of the father’s identity. In such cases, the mother and father may sign a legal form called a voluntary acknowledgement of paternity and file the form with the court or appropriate state agency. Executing this voluntary acknowledgement may be done in the hospital following the child’s birth or any time thereafter. The father’s name is then included on the child’s birth certificate. Even if a voluntary acknowledgement is not completed soon after the child’s birth, the parties may later enter into an agreement with the assistance of their attorneys that establishes the father’s identity and resolves custody and support issues.
If neither of these voluntary procedures is an option, legal action may be necessary. A mother may file a paternity action to establish that the man she believes to be her child’s father in fact is or, if the mother is receiving public assistance, the state may initiate the action in order to recover costs from the father. The putative, or probable, father’s presence in court will be demanded, and he may be required to submit to DNA testing if he contests his paternity. Genetic blood test results are usually available within a few weeks, and they can establish (or negate) paternity with about 99 percent accuracy. If paternity is established in this manner, the court will enter an order regarding the father’s paternity. The father then becomes legally obligated to pay child support according to the state’s guidelines. A father may also initiate legal action to establish or negate his paternity.
At any time prior to entry of the court’s order, the parties may still enter into a settlement agreement that resolves the custody and financial issues relating to the child. In most instances, a father is legally required to provide financial support to his children and does not have a lot of room to negotiate.
Once paternity has been established, the child obtains many legal rights beyond child support. For example, the child can inherit from his or her father, is eligible for health insurance coverage under the father’s group policy, is entitled to social security benefits if the father dies or becomes disabled, may be entitled to wrongful death benefits if the father dies as a result of someone else’s negligence and can obtain medical history information as a result of establishing paternity.
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