Paternity: Protecting the Legal Rights of Mothers, Fathers, and Children

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In Missouri, a child conceived during marriage is presumed to be the child of both the husband and the wife.  Over the past few decades, there has been a considerable rise in the amount of untraditional relationships and civil unions.  Marriage does not necessarily have to be a precursor to moving in together, or having children.  Let’s take a look at how paternity affects a couple in a committed relationship, but not legally married.

Frank and Molly are a happy couple.  They have been in an intimate relationship for over a year when Molly finds out she is pregnant.  Frank and Molly decide that they are not ready to get married.  Nine months later, Frank and Molly are proud parents to a new baby girl.  Frank and Molly never doubted that Frank was the father of their child.  What happens if Frank and Molly break-up?

If Frank and Molly had been married when Molly became pregnant, Frank would be the presumed legal father of their child.  However, without this ‘automatic’ legal relationship, the paternity of the child must be established to ensure that the rights of the father, mother, and child are all protected.

Why is Paternity Important?

The word “paternity” is defined simply, it means fatherhood. The process of declaring the legal father of a child is called “establishing paternity.”  Establishing paternity is a crucial step in defining the rights of a child’s father, as Missouri law recognizes only the legal father as having certain rights and responsibilities, including visitation or custody and child support.

In most instances, it is in the best interest of your child to have a legally recognized father.  Children benefit from having two parents that are obligated to contribute financially to their well-being.  A child can also benefit from the sense of belonging that accompanies knowing who his biological parents are and from where he comes.  Special family health problems may need to be identified and handled accordingly.  Additionally, in order for a child to receive certain benefits from his father, such as health insurance, inheritance (without a will), and life insurance proceeds, to name a few, the child must be the legal child of the alleged father.

How is Paternity Established?

Establishing proof of paternity in Missouri can be accomplished with little to no hassle, by simply signing an Affidavit Acknowledging Paternity at the hospital when your child is born.  During this time of celebration, it is important to have conversations about paternity before you get to the delivery room.  In our scenario, Frank’s acknowledgment of paternity makes this process much easier.  It is likely that Frank and Molly had discussed the issue of paternity during Molly’s pregnancy and had thus consulted with a competent paternity attorney to discuss how to proceed in the best interest of their child.  The happy couple can sign this Affidavit Acknowledging Paternity at the hospital, and Frank will then appear on the child’s birth certificate as the child’s father.

However, if this action is not taken at the hospital, there are other options.  An Affidavit Acknowledging Paternity can be completed later by contacting the Missouri Bureau of Vital Records or the Missouri Family Support Division.

If the father does not admit paternity in this manner, Family Support Division may request or the court can order genetic testing to legally establish paternity. 

What if You Aren’t the Father?

It is important to note that either party has the right to dispute paternity.  If a man denies he is the father of the child, he may request a DNA genetic parentage test to disprove his paternity.  A blood sample or cheek swabs from Father, Mother and child are all that is necessary for a DNA test, making the process relatively simple and painless.  The mother, the alleged father or the child’s custodian may ask the court or the Division of Family Services to order the alleged father to undergo a DNA test.  Once the test results arrive, the court or the Family Support Division may enter an order establishing paternity.

If you do not believe that you are the father of the child, it is important to contact a competent paternity attorney to help you understand your options for contesting a paternity lawsuit.

How Does Paternity Affect Child Support?

While fathers often wish to establish paternity in order to secure custody or visitation with their children, mothers sometimes seek to establish paternity in order to receive the financial support they need to raise their children.  Unless paternity is established, the father is not legally obligated to provide child support to the mother.

Mothers sometimes feel that going through the hassle of establishing paternity is unnecessary because the child’s biological father is currently paying for his share of the child’s expenses.  However, a child support obligation is one that can potentially last until your child is 21-years-old.  It is important to secure your child’s financial well-being by establishing paternity to ensure that your child will continue to be supported by both parents until he or she is emancipated.

For more information on ending your child support obligation, see our blog When Does Child Support End.

Does a Father Have Any Rights?

Missouri historically awarded custody of children primarily to mothers.  However, this is no longer the case.  It is now well recognized that, in most situations, children benefit tremendously from having meaningful relationships with both of their parents.  Fathers and mothers are often awarded joint custody of their children.  In order to exercise this right and petition the court for custody of your children, a father must establish that he is, in fact, the biological father of his children born outside of wedlock.

If paternity has already been established and you believe that you are not the biological father of a child, in certain circumstances you have the right to file a petition with the court to have paternity set aside.  However, the filing of this petition to set aside paternity is time-sensitive, and it is important to contact a competent family law attorney who can advise you of your rights.

Kathleen Shaul is a strong advocate for her clients in paternity suits, focusing on her clients’ wishes and to help them weigh what is in the best interest of the children involved.  Having represented both mothers and fathers, Kathleen is an experienced paternity lawyer.  For help protecting your legal rights in paternity disputes, contact The Law Offices of Kathleen E. Shaul to arrange for a consultation and evaluation of your case.

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