Paternity must usually be established before child support can be collected.
The question "Who is the father?" is not as simple a question as you might think. There are important legal distinctions between different situations relating to paternity.
When Paternity Is Agreed On or Presumed
Acknowledged father. An acknowledged father is a biological father of a child born to unmarried parents for whom paternity has been established by either the admission of the father or the agreement of the parents. An acknowledged father must pay child support.
Presumed father. If any of the following are true, a man is presumed to be the father of a child, unless he or the mother proves otherwise to a court:
- The man was married to the mother when the child was conceived or born, although some states do not consider a man to be a presumed father if the couple has separated.
- The man attempted to marry the mother (even if the marriage was not valid) and the child was conceived or born during the "marriage."
- The man married the mother after the birth and agreed either to have his name on the birth certificate or to support the child.
- The man welcomed the child into his home and openly held the child out as his own.
In some states, any of these presumptions of paternity is considered conclusive, which means it cannot be disproven, even with contradictory blood tests. In Michael H. v. Gerald D., 491 U.S. 110 (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld California’s presumed father statute as a rational method of protecting the integrity of the family against challenges based on the due process rights of the father and the child.
A presumed father must pay child support.
Equitable parent. In Michigan (Atkinson v. Atkinson, 408 N.W.2d 516 (1987)) and Wisconsin (In re Paternity of D.L.H., 419 N.W.2d 283 (1987)), a spouse who is not a legal parent (biological or adoptive) may be granted custody or visitation under the notion of equitable parent. Courts apply this concept when a spouse and child have a close relationship and consider themselves parent and child or where the biological parent encouraged this relationship. If the court grants an equitable parent custody or visitation, then the parent will also be required to pay child support.
Alleged father. An unmarried man who impregnates a woman is often referred to as an alleged father, or sometimes simply as an unwed father. An alleged or unwed father will be required to pay child support if a court determines or he acknowledges that he’s the father; in addition, an alleged or unwed father has the right to visitation with his child and may seek custody.
Stepfather. A stepfather is the spouse of a legal mother and is not also the biological father of the woman’s children. A stepfather is not obligated to support the children of the woman to whom he is married unless he legally adopts the children.
A paternity action, a court suit filed to have a man declared the father of a child, can be brought by either the mother or the father. Paternity actions are sometimes called establishment hearings, filiation hearings, or parentage actions.
Most paternity actions are initiated by welfare officials who provide TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) to the mother and are required by law to seek reimbursement from the father. The mother must cooperate in these proceedings; failure to do so can result in a reduction or loss of her TANF grant.
Today, blood and DNA tests can affirmatively determine paternity with a 99.99% accuracy and can rule out paternity with 100% accuracy.
If paternity is established following a paternity action, the court will order the father to pay child support and grant him custody or visitation rights.