Paternity is the legal term we use to describe a person as the biological or assumed biological father of a child. We use the term “assumed” or “presumed” because the legal system does take a guess at an individual’s paternity. The law assumes that when a married woman gives birth, her husband is the father. Therefore, paternity is assumed or presumed in this case.

But that presumed paternity may be mistaken. Sometimes the mother is not even quite sure which man is really the biological father. Perhaps the mother of the child has an affair or was a victim of rape or perhaps she was pregnant from a previous relationship before marrying her new husband. In these cases, paternity would have to be proven should the biological father want to express his father’s rights or be disproven if the husband does not want responsibility for a child that is not his. Or it could be that one parent or the other just wants to know for sure who the father is but the other parent will not cooperate.

When an unmarried woman gives birth, paternity must be agreed upon or proven. If a mother has stated the name of the father but the parents were not married to each other and no legal determination has been made, the law calls that man an “alleged” father. Thus, we may refer to a father as the “presumed father” if the parties were married, the “alleged father” if they were not married, or the “legal father” if paternity has been legally established.

To understand more about paternity, how it functions in a legal sense, and how you can prove it, we’ve decided to dive deep into the topic. We’re going to explore why you would want to establish paternity, how you would go about doing so, and how long you can expect the process to take.

Why Would You Want to Establish Paternity?

Establishing paternity has quite a few advantages. However, before we get into those, let’s talk about the more obvious, but less discussed, reasons.

First of all, establishing paternity allows you to be named on the child’s birth certificate. This may be a small thing, all things considered. But for many people it is an extremely important thing. As a symbolic act, it can let the child know that their father was there for them from the beginning. Sometimes, at least for younger children, it may be a catalyst for changing the child’s last name. Having the correct last name and knowing for sure who one’s father is may be very important to the child’s self-worth and identity, and it may be quite important to the father’s pride.

Establishing paternity also allows you to have peace of mind. It can be confusing to not know if a child is yours or not. The child may have doubts or have been told conflicting stories and the child may want to know for sure. This could be much less of an issue with married couples but when a child is born out of wedlock it can be more difficult to have this peace of mind. Establishing paternity, or failing to, may allow you or the child to rest easier. Often in case of divorce, if the presumed father suspects that the child is not really his, he may want to challenge paternity because he doesn’t want to pay child support for a child that is not his.

As a father, establishing paternity allows you to gain legal rights to the child. This means that you can work with the mother or through the court to establish visitation with the child or even custody. Without establishing paternity, you would have no grounds upon which to visit with the child nor to have a say in any important life decisions.

Another way of wording that would be to say that without establishing paternity you could have no way to bond with your child or to participate in their lives. You may feel like that is your right as the father of the child but you can’t prove that you have any right to this without proving to the courts that you are the father. Even if the mother of the child has been allowing you some contact with the child, that contact is solely at the whim of the mother unless you establish legal paternity. Thus, a paternity test is necessary.

For children, establishing paternity helps them to have a relationship with their father but even more importantly it can help them to learn about their family history and present a more accurate medical history to their doctors. It could also mean access to benefits or inheritance from their father. The establishment of paternity may be required in order to obtain health insurance through the father’s employment.

For mothers, establishing paternity may mean that they have less control over the child’s life in the overall picture. But it also means they can split the responsibilities with the father, such as the responsibilities of parenthood and the costs of raising the child. In order to obtain a court order for child support in cases where the parents were not married, paternity must first be legally established.

For the man who is seeking an establishment of paternity, he should be prepared that if he is found to be the father, he will most likely be ordered to pay child support at the same time that the court finds him to be the father. For a man who is notified by the Office of the Attorney General that a woman is alleging he is a father and wants a court order for child support, if he is not absolutely sure he is really the father, he should immediately request a DNA test to be certain he is the father before the child support is ordered.

How Do You Establish Paternity?

You can establish paternity voluntarily or through a contested court proceeding. If the parents were married and paternity is presumed, it is simply a matter of confirming what is already legally true. It should come as no surprise that establishing paternity voluntarily is a much easier experience than using a court order, but ultimately the end effect is the same.

If you and the mother of the child agree that you are the biological father of the child then you can establish paternity through signing an Acknowledgment of Paternity. This will first be presented at the hospital and you can absolutely fill it out there. But if you miss it at the hospital, don’t worry; you can always sign it at a later date and mail it to the Vital Statistics Unit in Austin. The only real downside to signing it later is that it will cost a small fee to get the birth certificate changed to include the father’s name. If the mother is not communicating or refuses to sign the Acknowledgement of Paternity, even if the man is not absolutely sure that the woman is pregnant, he may register in the state’s Paternity Registry a statement that he believes he may be the father and wants notice of any court proceeding affecting the child.

This system works on a sort of honor system. It is possible for a couple to sign a paternity notice despite the man not being the child’s biological father. This would establish paternity and grant him father’s rights, but it wouldn’t be true. In many cases, it might not prove to be a big issue but should the real biological father ever show up to contest things it could get ugly real fast. It may also be emotionally devastating to some, or all, of the parties involved to find out years later that the person they thought was the father really isn’t.

Involuntary establishment happens when somebody disputes the paternity of the child or for whatever reason simply refuses to cooperate. The issue can be submitted to the courts by filing a Petition to Adjudicate Parentage in a Suit Affecting Parent-Child Relationship. DNA testing or genetic testing may be ordered to answer the question. The inside of the mother, father, and child’s cheeks are swabbed and the DNA is sent off for analysis. It is a painless procedure and will tell very accurately whether or not paternity is established. The certified report from a DNA testing lab is conclusive proof in court.

How Long Does it Take To Establish Paternity?

Voluntary paternity takes absolutely no time. You can both agree to the paternity at the hospital when the child is born and be done with it, unless the mother is married to someone who is not the father. Even if the mother is married to someone else, an alleged father has a right to file an acknowledgement of paternity, but the hospital may resist assisting with that.

If DNA testing is required to establish paternity, then you have to wait for the lab to analyze the data. This typically takes four to six weeks from the date of the swab.

If some of the parties do not wish to cooperate and a court order is required before the parent can be forced to participate, then the parties must be served with notice of the lawsuit and given time to respond and a court hearing must be set with the court, so it may take months.

Should I Work With an Attorney to Establish Paternity?

An attorney may not be necessary for establishing paternity voluntarily. But in some cases, especially when it comes to disputing paternity or getting a court order, they can be very helpful. While there is less courtroom drama in these proceedings, there are still a lot of legal loopholes to be navigated and it can get confusing pretty quickly. The courts generally do not write the orders, so the person who requested a court order must write the order that the judge will sign and even just setting a hearing to get in front of a judge may be difficult for a nonlawyer. In the situation where an adjudication of paternity is to be submitted or the child’s birth certificate changed, the forms may be difficult for some people to understand and complete correctly, so an attorney’s help will make that process easier as well.

But an attorney with experience dealing with family law and paternity issues will be able to steer you through any issues, answer your questions, and help you move through this experience as quickly as possible.