How Do Unmarried Fathers Establish Paternity?

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. on January 22, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When a child is born to a married couple, the husband is generally presumed to have paternity rights as the child's father.

But what about a child born to unmarried parents? Establishing a child's maternity is generally fairly straightforward (for hopefully obvious reasons). Paternity, on the other hand, may in some circumstances require legal action.

Why is paternity important, and how do unmarried fathers go about establishing it?

Why Paternity Matters

Establishing legal paternity gives a father a number of important legal rights in decisions involving his child. Foremost among these is the right to seek visitation right or custody or his child. In some circumstances, a father who establishes paternity of a child may be able to assume sole custody of the child if the child's other parent is shown to be unfit or incapable of caring for the child.

Paternity may also be important when the mother of the child is married to another man. In some jurisdictions, a woman's husband at the time a child is born is legally presumed to be the child's father. In these states, establishing paternity will be required to rebut this presumption.

A legal determination of paternity can also allow a father to block a mother's attempt to give a child up for adoption if the father does not consent.

How to Establish Paternity

Although paternity laws vary by state, in general, paternity can be established through one of several different ways, including:

  • A voluntary declaration. When paternity is not disputed, it can typically be established by signing and filing a declaration of paternity at the time the child is born.
  • A court order. Paternity may also be established by court order following a successful paternity action which may involve DNA testing.
  • An administrative order. Depending on your state, paternity may also be ordered by an administrative agency. In Utah, for example, paternity can be established by order of the Office of Recovery Services.

Learn more about father's rights, paternity tests, and more at FindLaw's section on Paternity.

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