When a woman who is married to a man has a baby, the man is generally assumed to be the legal father. However, when a woman who is unmarried has a baby, the law doesn’t automatically recognize a father, even if the biological father is present at the birth. Unmarried couples need to take extra steps to establish legal paternity. This is important for several reasons. Establishing paternity protects the child by ensuring that they have access to benefits through the father including child support, health insurance, disability benefits, survivor’s benefits, and life insurance. Establishing paternity also protects the father. Without legally established paternity, the chances are greater that a judge might deny the father sole or joint custody or visitation rights. Fathers who want to be certain that they’re included in the child’s lives will need to make sure that they’ve taken the necessary steps to be legally recognized as their child’s father.
The Birth Certificate
One way to establish paternity is for the mother to name the baby’s father when she fills out the birth certificate information. For mothers who give birth in a hospital or birthing center, the birth certificate paperwork is usually taken care of there. At some point following the birth, a representative of the health department or a hospital-based social worker will visit the mother and ask questions about the baby’s name and parentage. Although mothers don’t have to choose a name or name a father at this time, they’re usually encouraged to do so.
It’s important to note that an incomplete birth certificate can always be amended later on. If the mother chooses not to identify the father at the time of birth, the parents can visit the local Department of Health or Bureau of Vital Statistics to find out what they need to do to have the father added to the birth certificate later.
The Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity
In all states, unmarried fathers have the opportunity to sign a document acknowledging that they are the father of their child. This document can be filled out in the hospital or at a later date and time.
In some cases, fathers who want to be listed on the birth certificate must fill out a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity first. Certain states have laws prevent unmarried mothers from adding a father’s name to the birth certificate without this document. When both parents sign a voluntary statement acknowledging a man as the baby’s father, this is treated as a court order. It establishes paternity whether or not the father’s name appears on the child’s birth certificate.
Paternity and Child Support
It’s important to note that a lack of paternity acknowledgment or a father’s name on the birth certificate does not remove the responsibility of a father to pay child support for his child. A father who refuses to sign a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity can still be sued for child support. The court will simply take steps to establish paternity so that a child support order can be made. With today’s medical technology, a DNA test can reliably establish whether or not a man is the father of the child if paternity is in dispute.
This means that avoiding being put on the birth certificate or signing an acknowledgment of paternity is not a good strategy for men who are worried about being required to pay child support payments. If you’re the father, you’ll most likely end up being ordered to pay child support anyway. However, refusing to acknowledge your child could hurt you if you want to exercise your parental rights later on.
Time Limits for Acknowledging Paternity
Generally speaking, if you want parental rights to your child, the sooner you sign a statement acknowledging paternity, the better. States may or may not have time limits for this documentation, but the timing may be important if a custody dispute arises.
For example, if the father doesn’t sign an acknowledgment of paternity, and the mother later decides to put the child up for adoption, a belated acknowledgement of paternity may not help the father exert his parental rights and stop the adoption – especially if he failed to establish a relationship with the child before the adoption proceedings started. This doesn’t mean that an unmarried father’s rights to their child can be taken away arbitrarily – if the mother prevented the father from having any involvement with the child or failed to inform him that he had a child in the first place, the court will often protect the father’s rights to be acknowledged as the father and form a relationship with the child, and even to seek custody if he chooses. But fathers who don’t show an interest in establishing paternity or spending time with their child may not be allowed to insert themselves into a custody dispute or adoption at the last minute.
Men who know that they’re the father of a child should take steps to acknowledge paternity as soon as possible, for their own sake as well as for their child’s sake. However, men who are not sure that they’re the father – or men who know that they’re not the father – should think twice before establishing paternity.
If you acknowledge paternity for a child who turns out not to be yours, and the biological father finds out later, you could find yourself stuck in an ugly and complicated custody dispute. And it’s also worth noting that child support is an 18-year commitment, while your relationship with the child’s mother might not be. That’s fine if the child is yours, but if the child isn’t yours or you suspect that the child isn’t yours, you may want to reconsider putting yourself on the hook for that child’s support, even if you don’t believe another man will challenge your paternity and custody rights. If you’re unsure whether or not you’re the father, you can establish paternity through a DNA test before you sign the birth certificate or acknowledgment of paternity.
Establishing paternity of your own child is a key factor if you want the right to have custody of, visit with, or make important decisions for that child. A legal resource group like National Family Solutions can help unmarried fathers take the legal steps they need to take to assert their rights to their children.