The Importance of Establishing Paternity
Many unmarried fathers, particularly young fathers with low incomes, may try to avoid confirming paternity because they associate it with the establishment and enforcement of a child support order. While the two are linked, fathers should be aware that a child support order will only be established if requested by the custodial parent, or if the custodial parent applies for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), commonly known as cash assistance. In that case, the state is required to seek establishment of a child support order. More importantly, fathers should be aware of the importance of establishing their legal right to be involved in their child’s life. Unlike married fathers, who are legally considered the father, unmarried fathers have no legal rights until they complete a paternity acknowledgment process, which varies from state to state. Once paternity is legally established, they can petition for various rights, such as custody, visitation, or the right to join in decisions about the child’s education.
Programs can build trust with unmarried fathers by explaining how establishing paternity ensures their legal rights and various rights and privileges for their children, such as rights to inheritance, father’s medical and life insurance benefits, and Social Security and veterans’ benefits, plus access to paternal family health history.
Fatherhood practitioners can learn about their state’s steps for establishing paternity and petitioning for legal rights by contacting their local or state child support office. Many fatherhood programs invite child support agency representatives to make presentations explaining the process for fathers and staff.
Fathers who have not legally established paternity often do not realize the limitations of their situation until they hear about another dad who is losing contact with his children. For instance, a father may find out that his child’s mother is planning to move out of state, or a report of child abuse or neglect has led to child protection workers removing the child from the home. If a father has no legal certification of paternity, he has no recourse to object or request consideration for custody. Child welfare workers are required to undertake due diligence to find fathers, but not being named on the child’s birth certificate can slow that process.
Sometimes an unmarried man believes he is the father of a child and agrees to sign a declaration of paternity, only to find out later that he is not the father. Although the subject might be difficult, dads might be advised to request a blood test before signing a paternity declaration if they have any doubts about whether they are the father.