Parents have a legal obligation to provide financial support for their children, even if a parent is not listed on the child's birth certificate. Once a child's father is legally established in accordance with state law, the child's father can be required to pay child support. However, until paternity is determined by law, an unestablished father is not required to pay support.
Paternity Can Be Established in Several Ways
State laws determine the details of how paternity is established, and paternity does not always involve DNA tests or other biological proof. Generally, spouses are considered the legal parents of a child if they are legally married to each other at the time of the child's birth. Parents can voluntarily acknowledge paternity by signing a state form after the child's birth, even while at the hospital for the child's birth. If there are questions about paternity that cannot be resolved through one of these methods, paternity can be established by a court order.
Paternity Suits Are Possible
When it becomes necessary to establish paternity for a child, often because the mother or state wants the father to begin paying child support, the mother or her representative can file a paternity lawsuit in state court. Sometimes, a state child support agency files this lawsuit on behalf of the mother. The suit lists details about the child and likely father, along with reasons why the mother believes the child is the biological child of this person. For example, the lawsuit could say that the likely father is the only person with whom the mother had sexual relations around the time of the child's conception. The court then determines whether the evidence is sufficient to establish paternity or what additional testing might be necessary. If the court is satisfied the evidence shows the likely father is actually the child's father, it enters an order of paternity, sometimes called an order of filiation.
Establishing Child Support
If requested, a child's non-custodial parent generally must make payments to the custodial parent to help with the costs of raising the child. Thus, a court can order the father to pay child support once paternity is established, regardless of whether the father's name is on the child's birth certificate. Courts establish support amounts based on state guidelines as applied to the parents' situation. A father who makes more money, for example, is likely to pay more in child support. Generally, support payments are deducted directly from the paying parent's paycheck and sent to the state distribution unit before being sent to the custodial parent.
Paternity Benefits for the Father
If the mother is the custodial parent, it may seem like establishing paternity only benefits her. However, a father receives some benefits from being declared the legal parent of the child, too. Legally-established paternity gives the father legal rights to the child, including the right to ask for court-ordered custody and visitation. If the child is in the adoption process, the father also gets the right to have a say in the adoption proceedings. He would not typically have these rights without first becoming the child's legal father.