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If you were not married when your child was born, then you will need to file a Paternity with the court if you want to establish parental rights.  While most people believe the term “paternity” relates to establishing a child’s father, the truth is that in the courts, a Paternity is the legal action that parents must take if their children were born outside of the marriage. A Paternity can be filed by either parent, and is used to establish child custody, visitation, and support.

There are many good reasons to establish paternity, even if both parties are currently in agreement regarding matters related to the minor children.  A paternity helps establish the rights and responsibilities of the father, including custody, visitation, and support.  A paternity can also block placement of the minor child in foster care and allow either party the ability to terminate any adoption proceedings. Finally, a paternity order gives both parents a say in any medical or educational decisions related to the child, and establishes rights to inheritance, wrongful death claims, and social security or health insurance.

The first step to initiate a paternity action is to file a petition with the court.  Much like a divorce, a Petition for Paternity establishes a case with the family courts and sets the stage for further orders regarding custody, visitation, and child support.  Although the term “paternity case” is often associated with determining parentage, in reality any action involving children born outside of a marriage contract will be handled under a paternity case.

Either parent can initiate a paternity case with the family courts as long as the child is under 21 years of age.  It is common for unwed fathers to file a “voluntary acknowledgement of paternity” to initiate a family court case in order to establish custody, visitation, and support orders.  A mother may also file a petition with the court, and in the case of disputed parentage, the court can also order paternity testing to resolve the question of parental rights.  Additionally, a child’s legal guardian or the any department of social services may also initiate a paternity action.

Once a Petition for Paternity is filed, each party will present their custody, visitation, and support requests to the court. A paternity petition can also be used for any emergency orders or Ex Parte requests, and court orders for child custody, visitation, and support can be established before the resolution of the initial paternity case. Once the court has issued a final paternity order, any future requests will be filed under this paternity case, using the same case number and plaintiff/respondent designations. Should one or both parents move out of the state where the paternity case was filed, any future orders would have to be filed through the court that originally heard the case, as that state will have jurisdiction over all matters pertaining to the children included in the initial petition.