Establishing Parentage

Paternity Defined (1 of 3)

Paternity, or parentage, is the establishment of a legal relationship between a father and children to provide basic emotional, social, and economic ties.  It further conveys certain legal rights and privileges to the children.  Among these may be rights to inheritance, rights to the father's medical and life insurance benefits, as well as access to social security and possibly veterans' benefits.  The children also have a chance to develop a relationship with the father, and to develop a sense of identity and connection to the father’s side of the family. Parentage can also be important for the health of the children for doctors to have knowledge of the father's medical history.

Although often addressed primarily from the standpoint of providing the legal basis for financial child support, there is strong social research to indicate that by establishing parentage, fathers are afforded greater opportunities to take active roles in the upbringing of the children and to help create a more successful life.

Acknowledgment of Paternity (Parentage)

With very limited exceptions, the husband is considered to be the legal father if the mother and father were married when the children was born.  If the parents are not married to each other when the child is born, the man is not presumed the legal father, even if the parents are living together.  So, if the child is born outside of marriage, determining parentage is a necessary procedure to establish a legal relationship between father and child.  This is usually accomplished by either a court order or an affidavit acknowledging paternity.  The process for establishing parentage is an easy task that the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement strongly promotes. A father can simply acknowledge parentage by signing a written admission or voluntary acknowledgement of paternity.

Unmarried Parents and Paternity

All states have programs under which birthing hospitals give unmarried parents of a newborn the opportunity to acknowledge the father's parentage of the child.  Federal law requires every state to provide a process through its hospitals and vital records offices whereby unmarried parents who are in agreement that the male is the father of a child can attest to that in writing in the form of an affidavit. That form can then be used to legally establish child support among other purposes. After the passage of a period of time, usually 60 days from signing, the acknowledgement is not able to be rescinded.  Parentage can also be established at a court or administrative hearing or by legal default if the person was served notice of a paternity hearing but failed to appear.  An acknowledgment of parentage becomes a “finding of paternity” unless the person who signed the acknowledgment denies parentage within sixty (60) days of signing. Generally, a finding of paternity may be contested only under very limited circumstances such as a basis of fraud, duress, or a material mistake of fact.

Access Center and Services Overview PictureMore Complex Situations

If the birth mother is married already or does not consent to a particular father claiming parentage, the usual court or administrative processes for establishing paternity are still available to either parent. Many states also have a birth registry whereby a man who believes he fathered a child can claim that child in the registry. Such action may help prevent that child from being given for adoption without notification to the father. Acknowledgements signed by a married woman naming another man as the father are not valid. This is not a proper use of the form.

Parenting resources including tools, joint custody links, and parenting articlesStates differ on how they treat an unmarried father who claims that a child born to a married woman is his. Some states will never allow such a petition as it creates a bastard, a status to be avoided under common law. Most states that do allow such an action require some proof that the husband could not be the father, such as he was in prison or  stationed overseas etc. and that the other man did have sexual contact with the woman before ordering a DNA test.

Additionally, parents are not required to apply for child support enforcement services when acknowledging paternity.  If it should become necessary for a parent, or other responsible party, to seek financial child support, a CSE caseworker from the local office will likely be assigned to discuss the children's financial and medical needs with the father and the minimum financial assistance legally required to provide for the children according to the state CSG.  However, a child support order cannot be established for a child born to unmarried parents until parentage has been legally established.  Once a finding of paternity has been made, the obligation to provide financial support is enforceable.


If parentage is not denied but was not established prior to leaving the hospital, parents are allowed to take the affidavit form with them and submit it to the local CSE office. If the affidavit acknowledging paternity was signed but further information is later revealed to the father to doubt his paternity, the alleged father may usually rescind within sixty (60) days after signing to request genetic testing or submit other relevant documentation.  Usually, if more than sixty (60) days but less than three (3) years have elapsed since making written acknowledgment, a motion to set aside establishment of parentage may only be based on allegations that the acknowledgment was inappropriately obtained by a manner of fraud or duress, or a significant error was made.

NEXT Disputing and Disestablishing Paternity