What does it mean to be a father? Though the question may seem self-evident at first, if you pause for a moment, the premise quickly becomes complicated. Being a father may describe a biological relationship, an emotional one, a legal one, or some combination thereof.
When it comes down to certain issues like who can make medical decisions for a child, though, or who is financially responsible for their well-being, the specific legal relationship is typically the most important one.
Given the legal repercussions of establishing paternity, there are many reasons that you might need to pursue a child paternity action, but you need to approach the process wisely. Before you initiate such legal proceedings, here’s what you need to know.
1. Marital Status Matters
When a child is born to a married couple, the husband is automatically assumed to be the father of the kid. That isn’t always true – and we’ll get to that – but that assumption is part of the system we use to establish paternity.
However, in a study of unmarried couples in Texas, as many as 70% of couples addressed legal paternity by signing an acknowledgment of paternity (AOP) form in the hospital. This number represents an increase in recent years, but what it overlooks is that men don’t necessarily do this because they actually believe they are the father of the child.
Among the many reasons that couples choose to sign an AOP form at the time of birth include wanting to ensure the father’s name is on the birth certificate, as well as reasons related to qualifying for public benefits or ensuring legal protections around child support.
Though there is insufficient data on fathers who don’t choose to sign an AOP at the child’s time of birth, what we do know is that this is often due to them not being present at the hospital.
2. Child Support Is Required
Child support, as well as child custody, are two of the leading reasons for pursuing a paternity action, and this can go several ways. For example, if you have a kid when you’re married and then file for divorce, the most common next step is to hire a child custody lawyer to help you negotiate the process.
Their task is to help couples determine not just custody but also child support payments. Since the couple was married at the time of the child’s birth, the husband’s name will automatically have been placed on the birth certificate, and everything should be in order, right? Maybe not.
If the legally established father, per the birth certificate, has reason to believe he may not actually be the kid’s father, they may at this time choose to initiate a paternity suit in hopes of avoiding costs and responsibilities. Though the court may still rule against any findings if the established father has spent years socially fulfilling that role, it’s undeniable that the legal relationship is also important, and different courts will weigh that differently. Choosing to pursue testing, even with the goal of disproving paternity, would be considered a voluntary action.
3. Ensuring Your Child’s Protection
Another reason to pursue a child paternity case is to ensure your child receives the protections they deserve. This is important if, for example, the kid was conceived during a short-lived or casual relationship and the individual believed to be the father has worked to avoid taking responsibility.
According to Rowdy Williams, “Pursuing an involuntary child paternity action can increase tensions between parents, but establishing paternity has only legal benefits for the kid, in terms of receiving appropriate support. By taking these steps, you ensure that even if your kid doesn’t have a relationship with their father, that you can file for child support to pay for their housing, education, medical care, and anything else they need.”
As of 2015, only about 60% of child support due was received, a statistic that underscores the importance of legally establishing paternity. Depending on the region, when a parent is delinquent in child support payments, they may face wage garnishment or even jail time.
Sometimes, this can be what it takes to care for your child properly, and you would be remiss not to consider pursuing a child paternity suit if it means giving your kid everything they need to thrive.
4. Establishing Your Rights
While many times child paternity cases are undertaken by mothers on behalf of their children, there are also times when fathers use these cases to positively establish their rights, such as when information about a kid is withheld from them in an attempt to prevent a relationship. This sometimes happens when the mother and father do not have a good relationship with each other and can be a type of preemptive estrangement.
If you’re a father who has been kept from their child, however, you still have parental rights, as long as you can establish that relationship, even if your kid is already a little older. The key is demonstrating that you were kept in the dark about your child’s existence or told that you were not the kid’s father. A relationship delayed shouldn’t be a relationship denied.
5. Addressing Fraud
There are several different ways that an individual can commit paternity fraud, and these situations include not only cases of false paternity, in which a mother wrongly identifies or accuses a man of fathering her kid, but also those cases in which a man manages to falsify a paternity test by getting another man to take it in his place.
Whatever the circumstances, paternity fraud is a serious crime and one that can find you standing in front of a court facing extensive financial penalties.
6. Accuracy Assured
The one major positive aspect of paternity suits today is that DNA testing makes it very easy to get an accurate determination. You can even get the ball rolling yourself with a home DNA test. Whether or not you go through the courts, or whether your case is adversarial, establishing paternity plays countless important functions.
It doesn’t matter if your goal is simply to provide your family with a sense of reassurance and security or to push for accountability in an uncertain situation, paternity will always play some role in identity, and it’s hard to hide relationships these days.
As every new article about discovering half-siblings or other lost relations reveals, consumer DNA testing has changed the landscape of identity formation. Doing the right thing now by establishing legal relationships can prevent upsetting discoveries down the road.