Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Dec 7, 2012

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Paternity determination establishes the biological father of a child as the legal father. When a child is born to unmarried parents, the child has a biological father but does not have a legal father. The biological father has no rights or responsibilities to the child unless and until paternity is determined. Once paternity is established, the biological father is recognized as the legal father, and the child has the same legal rights as a child born to married parents.

Generally, there are two ways for unmarried parents to establish paternity; by acknowledgment of paternity or by petitioning the court for a paternity determination. If the father agrees to voluntarily acknowledge paternity, this must be done in writing. Most states have an official Acknowledgement of Paternity form that the parents must complete and file with the appropriate authorities. Depending on the state, however, if the mother is legally married to another man at the time she gives birth, or within a certain time period prior to giving birth, paternity may not be voluntarily established by acknowledgment and the parents must petition the court to establish paternity.

It is preferable if the acknowledgement form is signed at the hospital before the mother and child are discharged so that paternity is established immediately and the child’s original birth certificate includes the father’s name. This avoids the need to have the original birth certificate amended. Most hospitals will require the father to be present and produce proof of identity, such as a photo ID, when signing the acknowledgement. However, if it is not possible to establish paternity at the hospital, an acknowledgement form may be completed at various other locations, such as family court or the local department of social services.

Contesting Paternity

If paternity is contested or in doubt, the mother or father must petition the court for a paternity determination. In general, once a petition to establish paternity is filed with the court, DNA testing of the mother, father and child is ordered. Genetic samples are usually obtained by swabbing the inside of each person’s mouth. The samples are sent to a laboratory and the results are available within three to four weeks. The parties may be permitted to arrange private DNA testing as long as they use a certified laboratory. Test results are usually 99% accurate in determining paternity.

If paternity is confirmed, custody, visitation and child support issues must be resolved. If the parties agree, they can enter into a custody and visitation agreement that sets forth the terms of their agreement. If the parties cannot agree, the court will decide these issues based on the best interests of the child.

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Paternity Suits

There are a number of reasons a parent may initiate a paternity suit. A mother may initiate a paternity suit in order to obtain child support from the father and to secure additional financial benefits for the child, including medical coverage, social security, pension, retirement, and/or veterans’ benefits, and, if applicable, inheritance rights. A father may initiate a paternity suit in order to establish that he is the legal parent of the child. Depending on the state, even if the father’s name appears on the child’s birth certificate, he is not the legal father until the court issues a judgment of paternity, also known as an order of filiation. Once paternity is established, the father is entitled to file for custody or visitation rights, and if the mother is considering adoption, the father has the right to be informed and may intervene in the adoption proceedings.

Additionally, it is important for the child’s medical provider to be aware of the child’s family health history, including any diseases, health conditions, or genetic traits that are unique to the family. Once paternity is determined, this information is available and a more complete health history of the child may be documented. Further, an important psychological and emotional benefit to the child when the father is involved in his or her life is the child’s relationship with the father’s side of the family, which may include grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives. These relationships often give the child the opportunity to better understand his or her heritage and provide the child with a sense of identity and increased self-esteem.