While the rate has declined over the last half decade, around 40 percent of births in the United States are to unwed mothers. This often leaves the new mom with a quandary: how to establish legal paternity and the emotional, social, medical, and economic ties that should bind a father and his child.
A voluntary declaration
The easiest way to establish paternity is via voluntary declaration, which is a common choice when the unwed couple are in an ongoing relationship or are opting to cooperatively co-parent. All states give fathers the ability, regardless of marital status, to sign a statement of paternity when the baby is born. This method varies somewhat from state to state, but in most states, such as in Missouri, the father and the mother together can sign an affidavit of paternity right in the hospital, declaring the man the legal father of the child.
Every state also offers this option any time before the child turns 18. While it’s easiest to legally establish paternity at the time of birth, it’s still possible to do so at a later date through the state’s local office of vital statistics.
A swab of the cheek
While voluntary declaration is easiest, that’s not always an option, especially if the father is not present at birth or no longer has a relationship with the child’s mother. Genetic tests are the gold standard for establishment of paternity in these cases, and while it takes some legal effort to get the ball rolling, caseworkers are there to help moms and their kids every step of the way.
One way to establish paternity starts in the local child support enforcement services office.
This typically is initiated by the mother, who is seeking child support. In addition, a mother’s application for public assistance can also trigger paternity testing and a subsequent child support order.
Caseworkers will collect as much information about the alleged father as they can, which they’ll forward to a child support enforcement attorney to begin legal action. The administrative process includes sending a notice to the alleged father; this informs him of his rights and provides directions on how and where to go for genetic testing.
The genetic testing involves either a simple blood draw or a swab of the inside of the cheek. Genetic materials of the child and the mother are compared to those of the father. Since the process is extremely accurate, it can almost always confirm or disprove that the man is the biological father.
Take it to court
Taking the case to court yourself is another option for establishing paternity, particularly in situations where the alleged father refuses to voluntarily submit to genetic testing and child support or public assistance is not desired. While the details vary from state to state, the same general procedures take place no matter where it begins. In North Carolina, for example, the case can be initiated by the mother, the possible father, or a personal representative of either.
If you’re considering this route, it’s a good idea to contact a family law attorney, who can guide you on how and where to file. If the mother is still pregnant, these cases frequently cannot be taken to court until the baby is born, but the parties can still file a lawsuit to get the ball rolling.
Mandated genetic testing is also a typical component of these proceedings, whether it’s a personal lawsuit or a state-filed legal proceeding, and the judge will take that and any other evidence into consideration before handing down a judgment.
While some “fathers’ rights” groups have rebelled against the existing process, establishing paternity can have many benefits, including access to the father’s medical history, financial support, or making visitation or custody easier down the road. While some methods are easier than others, family law is on the side of the child, as it should be.