Estate Planning, Collaborative Family Law & Mediation

Paternity Basics

Paternity is the term used in Minnesota statutes to refer to a child’s “legal father”. While every child has a biological father, not every child has a legal father. A child’s biological father is the man who got the child’s mother pregnant. A legal father is the man who the law recognizes as the father of the child. The legal father does not have to be the child’s legal father

When a married couple has a child, the husband is automatically recognized as the child’s legal father. However,  if the child’s biological mother and biological father are not married to each other when the child is born, the biological father is not recognized as the child’s legal father until he takes legal steps to establish his paternity. Until his paternity is established, the biological father has no legal rights to the child or responsibilities to provide financially for the child even if his name is on the child’s birth certificate. A birth certificate, by itself, is not enough to establish who is the child’s legal father.

A child’s legal father has an obligation to financially support the child and has the right to ask a for a court order establishing custody and parenting time. A child can also claim things like Social Security benefits, tribal registration benefits, health care coverage, veterans benefits and inheritance rights through their legal father.

Establishing paternity

If a man is not married to the child’s mother when the child is born, he can become the child’s legal father either through a voluntary mechanism called the Recognition of Parentage process or by court order. Using the Recognition of Parentage process is simpiler and less expensive alternative to obtaining a court order; it should be noted that if either or both parents are under 18 when the Recognition of Parentage is signed, a court order is the only way to get a final determination of paternity – however the Recognition of Parentage becomes the same as a court order six months after the youngest parent turns 18.

If both parents agree that the man is the biological father and want him to be the child’s legal father, they complete and sign a Recognition of Parentage. Once the Recognition of Parentage is completed and signed, it is filed with the Minnesota Department of Health. A signed Recognition of Parentage gives the mother the right to ask the legal father for finanacial support, including basic support, medical and dental, and child care support and the right to obtain medical information about the legal father. For the father, a signed Recognition of Parentage creates a relationship with the child that is separate from his relationship with the child’s mother. It allows the father to stay involved with the child as the child grows up and gives the father the right to ask the court for parenting time and custody, the right to be notified of any adoption proceedings, to have his name on the child’s birth record, and allows the father to cover the child under his medical and dental insurance policies.

As with any legal document, don’t sign a Recognition of Parentage if you are being pressured to do so or if you are not sure who the biological father is. If you have any questions about what you are signing, need help in completing the document, or have questions about your rights contact an attorney, your local legal aid office, or your county child support office.

If the parents disagree on who is the biological parent or do not wish to complete a Recognition of Parentage, or if an unmarried parent wants to get a court order for child support, custody or parenting time then parentage can be established by a paternity action. To start the paternity action, the father, the mother or the county attorney files papers with the District Court for the county where the child or the “defendant” lives – if either parent receives public assistance for the child, the county attorney will start the paternity action on the public’s behalf (by statute, the county can ask that the other parent be ordered to  financially support their child). Should you be served with a “Summons and Complaint” for paternity contact an attorney immediately; it is very important that you respond with your own papers to protect your legal rights. Failing to respond, or failing to respond within the specified time period will affect your rights to ask for genetic testing, deny or agree to paternity, have a say in child support, custody or parenting time.

In a paternity action, the court will decide if the “alleged” father is also the “legal” father. As part of a paternity action, the court may order genetic testing to show whether or not the alleged father is also the biological father of the child. Either parent may ask the court to order genetic testing, but to do so, the requesting parent must file a sworn statement either alleging or denying paternity and must provide sufficient facts to show that there was or was not sufficient sexual contact between the parents for the child’s mother to have conceived the child. In addition to ordering genetic testing and making a determination of paternity, the court can order child support payments, establish custody and set parenting time schedules.

As with any court proceeding, a paternity action provides the parents with the right to representation by an attorney, a right to a trail, the chance to provide testimony and cross-examine witnesses and to request that blood and genetic testing be done.  In most cases, a paternity action will take longer and cost more than completing a Recognition of Parentage.

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