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What is Legal Paternity?

By Susan Grindstaff
Updated May 17, 2024
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Legal paternity is the term used to define who the legal father of a child is. Details may differ in various geographic locales, but the essential meaning is typically the same. Legal paternity is usually assigned at birth, but in some cases, it may take years for it to be established. At the birth of a child, whomever is married to the mother is automatically considered to have legal paternity. In rare cases, such as when two men believe themselves to be the father, this right to paternity is sometimes challenged in court.

Legal paternity is often at issue in situations where the mother is unwed. In these cases, she may or may not choose to identify the father, and at that time, she cannot be compelled to do so unless she is sued. More commonly, unmarried mothers prefer to share responsibility with the biological father and typically do not withhold paternity. In some instances, the mother may be unsure of the identity of her child's biological father. Both of these situations could result in the necessity of a paternity test.

Paternity tests are a means of determining who has legal paternity over a given child. Sometimes, the father will take responsibility without question, but in some cases, men may choose to dispute the claim of the mother. When this happens, the mother, or sometimes the government, might file a paternity suit against the possible father. This typically involves deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) testing of both the child and the suspected father.

DNA testing is a test that measures genetic markers on a cellular level. In paternity tests, these markers are measured and compared between the possible father and the child. Prior to the common use of DNA testing, paternity was typically established by blood tests that attempted to compare blood compatibilities. This type of testing is not considered as accurate as DNA testing. Most scientists agree that DNA tests have an accuracy rate of more than 99%, and in many courts, DNA testing is the only evidence necessary to prove paternity.

Legal paternity is most often used in cases where the identity of the biological father is in question, and the procedures to establish legal paternity are usually instigated by the mother. Sometimes, however, men who suspect they may have fathered a child bring paternity suits. They may bring suit in order to acquire visitation rights and other rights of paternity. Some rights of paternity include the right to insure the child and designate the child as a legal heir. In addition, establishing legal paternity would typically allow the man to add his name to the child’s birth certificate.

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