Paternity law involves the legal recognition of a child’s biological father, typically established through genetic testing. For example, when a child’s paternity is in question or denied by the father, the mother may file a paternity suit against the alleged father to obtain child support. This section includes resources and articles about how paternity is established, its legal significance, grounds for challenging paternity claims, an overview of paternity tests, links to paternity laws in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and other related topics.

“Paternity” refers to the legal establishment of who is the father of a child. While the identity of a child’s biological mother is usually by nature easy to establish, the father’s identity may in some cases be uncertain. Paternity issues often arise in cases involving child support, but they can also be important in relation to adoption, inheritance, custody, visitation, and health care.

The following paternity law introduction will help you understand the process for establishing paternity and the legal significance that it carries.

Paternity Actions in Court

An action to establish paternity is a civil proceeding. Most states require that paternity be established by a “preponderance of the evidence,” which means that it must be more likely than not that the man is the father of the child. Other states, like New York, apply a higher standard, requiring “clear and convincing evidence” of paternity. In reality, however, the different standards have little practical impact in light of recent developments in scientific testing.

DNA Testing and Paternity

The advent of DNA profiling was a major breakthrough in paternity testing. In a DNA test, the scientist examines the genetic material that the child inherited from its biological parents. First, the child’s genetic characteristics are compared to those of the mother. The characteristics in the child that aren’t found in the mother are determined to have come from the father.

If the man being tested does not have these genetic characteristics in his DNA, he can be scientifically excluded. If the man does have such characteristics, the probability of his paternity is calculated. DNA testing can establish a father’s paternity with over ninety-nine percent accuracy, and the testing can be done even before the child is born.

How Paternity is Established

DNA testing is generally done only when one party contests the paternity allegations. For instance, the putative (or “alleged”) father in a paternity action that is the basis for child support collection may require proof that he is the child’s father before he consents to payment of support. In other cases, the mother may contest the putative father’s paternity, such as when a man attempts to gain custody of or visitation with a child he believes to be his.

In many other cases, there’s no argument between the parents, and paternity can be established voluntarily. Paternity may also be established by circumstantial evidence, such as when a man takes the child into his home and holds the child out to the public as his own. In many states, a married man is presumed to be the father of a baby born to his wife during or shortly after their marriage.

The Effects of Establishing Paternity

Once paternity is established, the father may be ordered to pay child support for his child. A father who isn’t married to the child’s mother generally will not be awarded custody of the child if the mother is providing reasonable care. He may, however, receive preference over third parties, such as grandparents or prospective adoptive parents. And, once a man is legally declared to be the father of a child, he’ll usually have visitation rights.

Tana Benner is an estate planning lawyer.

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