When the parents of a child are unmarried, it would be beneficial for the father to establish legal paternity. If paternity is not legally established, the mother has sole custody and placement of the child, and the father has no legal rights. This is the case even if both parties know who the biological father and even if he is involved in the child’s life. The parties must take legal action establishing his rights as the father. This can be done either by a legal determination by the court or by signing a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity.
A voluntary acknowledgment of paternity is a document signed by both parties that acknowledges the father of the child. This can often be signed at the hospital when the baby is born. The acknowledgment is separate from the birth certificate. In fact, without the paternity acknowledgment, the birth certificate cannot declare legal fatherhood. Signing the paternity acknowledgment can be preferable to undergoing the court process, although both parties should be mindful of the consequences. Signing this document is a binding legal declaration that the man is the father. If he signs this form and the child is not his, this can cause serious legal difficulties. It would be best to consult with an experienced family lawyer before signing any document to understand the consequences.
Without a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, a court hearing will be conducted to determine the father and genetic tests will be ordered. Once the genetic father has been established, the court will determine legal custody, physical placement, and child support. A child support order will be based on the parties’ incomes, the amount of time spent with either parent, and whether the payer has any obligations to support other children.
If the parties cannot agree to a custody/placement order, the court will issue a temporary order on the issues mentioned above. It will also conduct a family court study and appoint a Guardian ad Litem (GAL) to the case. A GAL is a family law attorney who will represent the child’s best interests and will make a recommendation to the court on the custody/placement order. The court will consider the GAL’s recommendations, the findings of the family court study, along with the evidence presented by both sides to determine a permanent order.
Once this order is in place it can be very difficult to change. Within the first two years, the parent who wishes to change the judgment must show physical or emotional harm to the child. After the two year period, the parent who wishes to change the judgment must show that there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the entry of the judgment. If you are in a paternity proceeding or interested in requesting a change in your current order, you should contact an experienced family law attorney. Our office can advise you of your rights in this matter and provides free half hour phone consultations.