The father’s paternity – that is “the state of being a father” – should be established as soon as possible after the baby is born. Paternity protects the mother, the child, and the father, because it reduces the possibility that a judge will deny the man custody or visitation of his child, or other rights to which fathers are legally entitled. Paternity also helps ensure that the child is eligible to receive benefits through the father, including health, survivors’, disability, and life insurance benefits.
Parents are legally responsible for their children and their support, regardless of whether they are married to each other or not. And even if the father did not want the child, or split from his partner before the baby was born, he remains responsible for the child’s support.
An acknowledgment of paternity is crucial in getting this financial support. Married parents normally establish the father’s paternity by naming him on the baby’s birth certificate. In some states the only way that an unmarried father’s name can be placed on a child’s birth certificate is if he signs a voluntary declaration of paternity. If the father is absent following the birth, the mother cannot list him as the father on the birth certificate. The father and mother instead have to sign the voluntary declaration of paternity at a later time, and have the father’s name added to the birth certificate later.
A voluntary declaration of paternity signed by both parents has the same legal effect as a court order, so once it is signed and submitted to the appropriate agency, the father’s paternal rights become firmly established.
An unmarried mother who has parted from her child’s father may have to bring a legal action to establish paternity if her ex-partner refuses to sign the voluntary declaration. All states offer unwed parents an opportunity to establish paternity by voluntarily signing an acknowledgment of paternity, either at the hospital or at a later time because U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regulations require parents be given the chance to establish parenthood. In many states, as a result of political pressure to reduce the number of mothers on welfare by ensuring that there is someone else with an obligation to support the child, hospital personnel make every effort to induce the father to sign the acknowledgment.
Of course, a man should not acknowledge paternity if he is not the father of the child or is not sure. Signing a paternity statement makes a man liable for child support and even for reimbursing the state for welfare payments made to the mother, until he proves that he is not the child’s father.
Sometimes when the mother no longer sees the biological father and is involved with someone whom she would prefer to have raise the child or who is financially better able to do so, she may misidentify the father of the child. This is a bad idea. An unmarried couple’s current relationship may not last forever and complicated legal questions of paternity and support can grow from listing the wrong person as the father of a child.