UPDATED: February 5, 2020
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A paternity or parentage action is a legal proceeding in which a man is officially deemed to be the father of a minor child. Paternity suits are filed for a variety of reasons. It may be commenced by an alleged father seeking custody or visitation, a mother seeking child support, a child seeking to establish a parental relationship or the state seeking reimbursement for public assistance. Only a person or entity with standing can file a paternity action. Standing simply refers to a party’s justification for filing a suit. With some exceptions, only four main parties have standing to file a paternity action: a mother, an alleged (or putative) father, the child, or the state.
A paternity action begins with the filing of a petition or a complaint (often referred to as a Complaint to Establish Paternity or a suit affecting a parent child relationship). A petition should set out why the party believes a particular man is the father of the child as the subject of the suit. Some states have enacted laws to create presumptions regarding paternity. Presumptions are assumptions the law makes regarding relationships. For example, most states will legally assume that when a child is born to a married couple, the husband is presumed to be the father of the child. State laws will also govern the timing of paternity actions.
Once a suit is filed, the alleged father will have a specified amount of time to file a written response to the allegations. If you receive a notice of paternity suit, you essentially have three options. The first option is that you agree your are the father and allow the court to adjudicate you as such. The second option is to contest the allegations. The third is to acknowledge that parentage is possible and to request a DNA test to confirm. If you have any doubt about whether you are the father of a child, this is a critical time to contest the allegations. If you accept the allegations as true, and the court accepts your response, you will forever be considered the father. Courts almost never reverse paternity findings, even if DNA testing later proves otherwise. The reason for this stubbornness is that the courts do not want a child constantly having to figure out who is his father.
A putative father contesting paternity will be required to appear and submit to DNA testing. Many courts require the father to pay for the testing. If you know you are the father, you may want to save time and money by agreeing to your paternity. As noted above, however, if you are in doubt, then submit to DNA testing. Current paternity testing is extremely accurate at establishing paternity with 99 percent accuracy.
If DNA testing confirms a parent-child relationship, the court will order child support according to your state’s statutory guidelines. State guideline child support is usually based on a formula; most courts will use a computer program to calculate a monthly support order based on such factors like the amount of time the child spends with each parent, the relative income of the parents, and the needs of the child.
The court will implement other orders setting the basic rules of the parent-child relationship, including a custody/visitation schedule and financial support. The order will also allow a child access to the father’s health insurance, inheritance rights, social security benefits if the father is disabled and more. Once a paternal relationship is formally established, the relationship between the father and child encompasses the same rights and obligations as any other parent child relationship.
Before you file a paternity suit, consult with a qualified family law attorney. A paternity suit may be the only option available in your jurisdiction but an attorney may be able to suggest options or advice that does not require the filing of a contested lawsuit. In some states, there may be an irrefutable presumption that the husband is the father of a child born to a married couple which may not be disproven. Even in states that permit a husband to challenge this presumption, state law typically sets a firm time period within which a challenge must be presented, such as two years. Once the time period has passed, the presumption that the husband is the father of a child born to a married couple becomes final and irrefutable.
Paternal relationships can also be established through the consent of the involved parties. A father can be listed by the mother on a birth certificate. This is not dispositive but may establish a paternal relationship if not challenged. Alternatively, a putative father may sign a voluntary acknowledgment so that the father’s name is added to the birth certificate. A mother and father who are not married may also voluntarily enter into an agreement through their attorneys which establishes a paternal relationship, outlines custody/visitation arrangements, and establishes child support.
If you think you are the father of a child and are considering filing a paternity suit, you should discuss your options with an attorney. If you fail to review your state’s family code, you may end up spending a good amount of money to carry out a lawsuit, only to find out that the time frame you had to file has lapsed. You should also be aware that if you are successful in establishing a paternal relationship with the child, the court will impose a child support order. The child support order may be modified if there is a change in circumstance such as a custody/visitation change or a significant change in income of one of the parties, but the right to receive support belongs to the minor child and can not be waived or bargained away by the parents.
Many states have created state agencies or use the District Attorney’s office to enforce child support orders. The state may even initiate a paternity action to recoup public assistance paid to the mother. Federal law permits very aggressive methods of enforcing a child support order including interception of a tax refund as well as wage assignments, seizure of property, suspension of a business license and in some states suspension of a driver’s license. If all of these efforts to collect past due child support fail, a court can hold the delinquent parent in contempt and possibly impose a jail term.
Because of the long-term emotional and financial consequences of being deemed the father of a child, consult with an attorney before filing a response to a paternity action or finalizing a paternity agreement.