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: Feb 6, 2012

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A woman can obtain a decree of paternity, or a formal legal recognition that a specific man is the father of her child, in one of two ways. She may join with the father in signing and filing a formal document, or, if the man does not agree to sign the document, the mother can petition the court for a court order declaring the man’s paternity. This may involve a court ordered paternity test.

Obtain a Decree of Paternity without a Court Order  

Both she and the father may sign formal acknowledgments in which they both admit the paternity of the father. These documents are filed with a state agency, usually the agency that issues birth certificates. Once the paternity forms are filed, a new or amended birth certificate is issued. These paternity forms are usually available at hospitals and through maternity wards, social services offices, and new baby clinics.

Usually the joint acknowledgment process is not challenged or rejected. But there are circumstances when this can occur. For example, if a newborn baby is being placed for adoption and the judge suspects that the named father is not the father but just doing the mother a favor, a paternity test can be ordered.

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What if the Man Objects or Refuses to Acknowledge His Paternity? 

When the father is unwilling to admit his paternity, the mother must petition for a court order declaring the man to be the father. The mother will almost always file in the state in which she lives. Some court systems have “paternity units” that only process paternity cases. Some courts will have forms that can be filled out and filed. Some courts or county governments have staff that will assist women seeking paternity orders. Some states allow filing before birth while some do not.

It is a good idea to file as soon as the law allows. Once the petition is filed the mother needs to make sure that the alleged father gets a copy of the court papers. If the father does not reply, the court may issue a decree of paternity depending on what other facts the woman can prove.

If the man opposes or questions his paternity, the court will order a paternity test using DNA samples. Sometimes the court will order the man to pay for the paternity test. The paternity test results will determine the outcome of the case. If the man refuses a paternity test, the court can declare him to be the father depending on other facts, even though there are no test results.

In some cases, the man’s attitude and behavior toward the child can have legal significance. But a DNA paternity test is considered to be 100 percent reliable, which is why courts and government agencies use paternity test results as conclusive proof of paternity in all situations.