（The content of this article comes from the California government website, and the regulations of each state may be slightly different. At the end of the article, there are links to the relevant regulations of each state)
If parents are married when a child is born, there is usually no question about parentage. The law assumes that the married persons are the child's legal parents, so parentage is automatically established in most cases.
But for unmarried parents, parentage of their children needs to be established legally.
In some cases, the law may also determine that a child has more than 2 legal parents.
Note: After January 1, 2005, if parents are registered domestic partners when a child is born, the law assumes that the domestic partners are the child’s parents.
What It Means to Establish Parentage
Establishing parentage means obtaining a court order or signing an official declaration of parentage or paternity that says who the legal parents of a child are. For example, if the parents of a child were not married when the mother became pregnant or when the child was born, the child does not have a legal father until parentage is established. So even if a father can prove he is the biological father of a child, if he was never married to the mother, he does not legally have any rights or responsibilities for the child. For that, parentage must be established legally.
Establishing parentage is necessary before custody, visitation, or child support will be ordered by a court. You can ask the judge for child support or custody and visitation orders as part of a case that establishes the child’s parentage.
- If a father does not admit that he is the parent, the court may order the alleged father, mother, and child to submit to genetic testing.
Establishing parentage is also necessary for same-sex parenting situations if the parents were not married when the mother became pregnant or when the child was born. For example, if two unmarried women agree to co-parent a child, and the woman who did not give birth to the child wants to be established as a legal parent, she would have to ask the court for an order establishing her parental rights legally. The court may order the person trying to establish herself as the “other mother” to prove the couple intended that she be the child’s parent. The same would be true of a same-sex relationship in which two men intended to be the child’s parents. They would have to prove to the court that they intended to be the child’s parents, and that they behaved that way. The law on parentage can be complicated so talk to your court's family law facilitator or to a lawyer to make sure you understand the details of your situation.
Once a person is established as the father or mother of a child, he or she will have all the rights and responsibilities of a parent:
- He or she will be able to request custody and visitation (parenting time) orders from the court so that he or she can legally visit with his or her child.
- He or she also will be responsible for paying child support and will have to pay half of the uninsured health-care costs for the children and half of the child-care costs that result from the custodial parent getting or having a job or going to school.
In California, in some cases the court may determine a child has more than 2 parents. This is usually done when it would hurt the child if additional parents were not legally recognized.
If a person is established as a legal parent of a child, that person MUST financially support the child. It is a crime for a legal parent to fail to support his or her child. A legal parent also has the right to get custody or visitation rights related to the child.
Reasons for Establishing Parentage of a Child
Establishing parentage is very important for a child. First, the child gets the emotional benefit of knowing who both of his or her parents are. And, legally, it entitles the child to the same rights and privileges as those of a child whose parents are married.
These legal rights and privileges are:
- Financial support from both parents;
- Legal documentation identifying both parents;
- Having the names of both parents on the child’s birth certificate;
- Access to family medical records and history;
- Health and life insurance coverage from either parent;
- The right to inherit from either parent; and
- The right to receive social security and veteran’s benefits, if available.
Once parentage is established, the court can make orders for child support, health insurance, child custody, visitation (parenting time), name change, and reimbursement of pregnancy and birth expenses. Without establishing parentage, the court cannot make orders regarding these issues. So if 1 parent needs child support and the other will not pay voluntarily, the court will not be able to order child support until parentage is established.
And even if 1 of the child’s biological parents does not have any money or a job to support the child or does not want to be involved in the child’s life, it is still a good idea to establish parentage. The benefits to a child of establishing parentage go far beyond the financial issues as the list above shows and include things like allowing the child to get child support or health insurance later on, when the other parent gets a job or is in a better financial situation.
If the situation is one in which there are more than 2 parents, all parents would have the rights and responsibilities of parentage.
The law will presume a person is a child’s other parent under the following circumstances (unless proved otherwise to a court). For example, John will be presumed to be the child’s other parent if:
- He was married to the child’s mother when the child was conceived or born;
- He attempted to marry the mother (even if the marriage was not valid) and the child was conceived or born during the “marriage”;
- He married the mother after the birth and agreed either to have his name on the birth certificate or to support the child; or
- He welcomed the child into his home and openly acted as if the child was his own. This concept is called “parentage by estoppel” and means that the court can find that a man is the legal father, even if he is not the biological father, if he has always treated the child as his own.
The presumptions that apply to married couples also apply to same-sex couples and those who entered into a registered domestic partnership after January 2005.
Ways to Establish Parentage
There are 2 main ways to establish parentage when the child’s parents are not married:
Signing a voluntary declaration of parentage or paternity,
- Getting a court order (either on your own or with the help of the Local Child Support Agency).
A voluntary declaration of parentage or paternity is a California governmental form that, when signed by both parents, establishes them as the legal parents of the child. The form must be signed voluntarily. No one can force either person to sign the form. The purpose of the declaration of parentage or paternity is to officially and legally establish who the parents of the child are when the parents are not married to each other.
A properly signed declaration of parentage or paternity has the same effect as a court order establishingparental relationship for the child, without anyone having to go to court.
Once the declaration is signed, the form must be filed with the California Department of Child Support Services Parentage Opportunity Program (POP) in order to be effective.
Read the section on Establishing Parentage to learn more about declarations of parentage or paternity and other ways to establish parentage.
Disputing Parentage and Genetic Testing
In general, a man who is being told that he is the father of a child has the right, if he is not completely sure he is the father, to request genetic (DNA) testing to find out for sure if he is the father of that child.
DNA is the biological material that determines a person’s physical characteristics. It is found in almost all of the cells in the body, and each person’s DNA is unique.
Some of a person’s DNA coding is inherited from the mother. Some of the DNA coding is inherited from the father. Therefore, by comparing the DNA coding of a mother, father, and child, their parental relationship can be established.
Because saliva contains DNA (as does the rest of the body), samples of a person’s DNA can be taken by gently rubbing a sterile cotton squab (like a Q-tip) inside his or her mouth.
- If the Department of Child Support Services performs the testing, normally there is no charge to either named parent.
- If the court orders the named parents to get genetic testing, there may be fees of several hundreds of dollars to have the testing done.
- The court will NOT accept private genetic testing as evidence in a paternity case unless the test has been ordered by the court.
- If the court orders genetic testing, it will provide the named parents with the information they need to get the tests done.
- The court will not accept genetic tests done at home or in a private medical facility.
To Know the law on paternity establishment in your state:
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming