If you are a father involved in the life of his child, then you know the significance of fatherhood: It means that you have the privilege and responsibility of molding the life of your child, teaching him or her your values, making decisions (often with your child’s mother) for your child, and keeping him or her safe. There is also a legal significance to paternity, which is important not only for you but also for your child and your child’s mother. Learn about why paternity is legally significant and what you can do if you need to assume fatherhood.
Legal Rights and Responsibilities of Paternity
Once you are determined to be a child’s father (and we will talk about how that happens below), several legal rights and responsibilities go along with that.
- First, you will be eligible to have custody of or visitation with your child in most cases. The details will vary based on a wide variety of factors, including the child’s age, whether you have been involved to this point, whether you have any history of domestic violence, and so on. You have the right to ask for custody (usually this would be joint custody, but in some cases, sole custody might be appropriate to ask for), and you can work this out with your child’s mother or go to family court to have a judge decide. Keep in mind that in addition to physical custody, which determines where your child lives, there is also legal custody, which determines who gets to make important decisions for your child. You can ask for both as your child’s father.
- Next, you will be responsible for financially supporting your child. Child support is determined based on how much income you have, how much income the child’s mother has, and other factors. This can vary based on which state you live in. You will have the right to refuse to allow your child’s mother to place him or her for adoption. If your child has not yet been born or if the mother does not want to raise the baby, you can petition the court for custody and not allow him or her to be adopted. Of course, if you want your baby to be placed for adoption, you (along with the baby’s mother) will be legally allowed to sign the paperwork allowing that to happen.
For your child, the legal consequences of paternity mean that he or she will be eligible for social security benefits if you were to die before he or she turns 18. They can also sue anyone responsible for your untimely death. The child would also be able to inherit your estate.
How to Assume Paternity
Now that you understand how important it is to make sure that you are listed as the legal father let us talk about how you can go about doing so. If you are married to your child’s mother when she gives birth, you are assumed to be the child’s legal father. Your name will go on the birth certificate, and there is nothing else you need to do. If you divorce your child’s mother, you are automatically entitled to seek custody and responsible for contributing to the financial costs of raising the child.
If you are not married to your child’s mother at the time of birth, you will need to sign an affidavit of paternity. This form will differ a bit in each state. If you are at the hospital or birthing center, you can fill out the form before your child is discharged. In this case, your name will go on the birth certificate. If your child has already been discharged from the hospital or is older, you can still fill out this form. Contact your town clerk and find out how you can get the form and what you need to do.
If you or your child’s mother disputes that you are the father, a DNA test (usually called a paternity test) can be done. These are 99 percent accurate at determining whether you are or are not the father. You might have a blood test, or you might use a cotton swab to scrape some cells from the inside of your cheek. The child will have the same test done, and the results will be compared. If the results come out that you are the child’s father, you will have the rights and responsibilities listed above.
Enjoying Time With Your Child
Fatherhood goes far beyond the legal consequences, of course. Whether your child is a baby or an older child, there are ways that you can build a wonderful relationship that will last for the rest of your life. Here are some tips:
- Take an active part in the day-to-day care of your child. It is easy to be intimidated by caring for a small baby, but it will become second nature with a bit of practice. If you cannot have your baby overnight, see if you can still take part in the bedtime routine, perhaps by giving the baby his or her last bottle of the day or bathing the baby. As your little one grows up, learn to do all the routine tasks, like changing diapers, bathing, toilet-training, reading the bedtime story, and so on.
- Work together with your child’s mother. Even if you are not together as a couple, you need to work together to raise your child. Treat her with respect and talk to her about any problems that come up. Work on a parenting plan together, so you each know where your child will be spending time. Decide on common rules that your child will have at each house for the sake of consistency, particularly when he or she is very young.
- Seek support from other dads. Whether you see your child only two weekends per month or are the parent with sole custody, being a dad can be hard at times. Look for friends and mentors who are dads and who can share some tips and help when needed.
Contact National Family Solutions if you need help navigating the legalities of paternity and fatherhood.