Why Should I Establish Paternity?

For some people, “establishing paternity” can be a hot topic of debate, while for others there’s no question – they want to establish paternity. When a child is born to married parents, “paternity” is a non-issue because the state automatically presumes the mother’s husband is the child’s biological and legal father.

In recent years, the number of babies born to unmarried parents has exploded. While researchers haven’t pinned down any one particular reason for this, we can certainly assume it has a lot to do with women being more financially independent than in earlier generations, and the fact that divorce is more socially acceptable than ever before.

With the steep rise in babies born to unwed parents, fathers’ rights became a growing concern. At a time when the parental rights for unwed parents were not equal (they favored mothers), legislatures nationwide began enacting legislation that addressed fathers’ rights as they pertained to unmarried fathers. Not divorced fathers, but fathers who were never married to the mothers of their children.

What it Means to ‘Establish’ Paternity

Paternity means being a “legal father.” A man can be a biological father, but until paternity is established, he is not the child’s legal father. Thus, when a child is born out of wedlock, it’s important to establish paternity as soon as possible after the child’s birth. By establishing paternity, the mother, the father, and the child are legally protected.

Until paternity is established, an unwed father has no rights and responsibilities toward his child. This means a court cannot issue any orders for child custody or visitation, nor can it order the father to pay child support. Establishing paternity also ensures the child is entitled to valuable rights through the father-child relationship, such as Social Security and veterans benefits, an inheritance, health insurance, disability, and life insurance.

In most cases, establishing paternity is very important because it benefits the child in many ways. For starters, the child benefits emotionally by knowing who their father is, and by having his name on the birth certificate. Legally, once paternity is established, the child enjoys all the same benefits as a child whose parents are married, or were married and obtained a divorce.

What if the Father Does Not Want to Be Involved?

What if the biological father has no desire to be a part of the child’s life? Or, what if he doesn’t have any money or if he can’t afford child support? Even still, it’s beneficial to have paternity established by the court. The benefits of establishing paternity are not limited to immediate financial support.

For example, the child can still learn who their father is, his name can be placed on the birth certificate, the child can gain access to their father’s medical history, the child can enjoy inheritance rights (even if it’s under California’s intestate succession laws, which go into effect when there is no will), and the child can receive financial support in the future when the father is in a better financial situation.

Two Ways to Establish Paternity

In California, there are two ways to establish paternity: 1) by signing a voluntary Declaration of Paternity, or 2) through a court order. In order to get a Declaration of Paternity, both parents need to voluntarily sign the form. If there is any doubt over who the child’s biological father is, this form should not be signed. Usually, the parents sign this form in the hospital, shortly after the child’s birth. No one can force a presumed father to sign this form, nor can they force the mother to sign it; the form has to be signed voluntarily by both parents.

When the father was not around for the child’s birth, or when the mother or father are not sure about paternity, the mother and presumed father are strongly encouraged to ask the court for genetic testing. In this case, the child’s DNA would be compared to the presumed father’s.

These tests are highly accurate so if it’s a match, the court will issue a court order saying that the presumed father is the child’s biological and legal father. From there, the mother can pursue child support and the father can pursue child custody and visitation orders if he desires to be in his child’s life.

Are There Reasons Not to Establish Paternity?

This is a highly personal question. If for example, the child’s biological father is addicted to drugs, or highly abusive towards the mother, she may not want to establish paternity, especially when she feels she can financially support her child on her own. She may feel that if the father came back into her life, she would be risking her safety and her child’s safety.

While the family courts generally encourage unwed individuals to establish paternity shortly after the child’s birth, in reality this does not happen 100 percent of the time. On occasion, the mother truly wants to raise the child on her own because she does not feel it’s in the child’s best interests to have the father in the child’s life. Sometimes, the presumed father is married to someone else and has a family of his own, and the parties feel it would be too disruptive to his family to establish paternity.

This, however, is not up to the father. If a married man has a child with another woman (not his wife) and he refuses to voluntarily acknowledge paternity, the child’s mother can ask the court for a DNA test, and the court can insist that he takes it. In such cases, if a married man turns out to be the father of another woman’s child, the court can require him to pay child support, regardless of the fact that he is married to someone else.

If you are looking to establish paternity, contact Claery & Hammond, LLP for a free case evaluation with one of our Los Angeles family law attorneys.