Parental Obligation and Challenging Paternity: What to Know

Who is the father? 

This can be a particularly challenging question to answer in cases where a child’s father is not known or is not in the picture. In such cases, paternity may be challenged in order to establish legal rights and responsibilities.

There are a number of scenarios in which paternity may be challenged. In one common scenario, the mother wants the alleged father to provide financial support. In another, the alleged father wants visitation rights or even custody of the child.

Whatever the reason may be, paternity challenges can be tricky and complicated legal proceedings. What follows is a brief discussion of what you need to know regarding parental obligation and challenging paternity.

What is parental obligation?

Parental obligation refers to the responsibility of parents to care for and financially support their children. While the specifics of parental obligation vary by state, there are some general obligations all parents share. These include providing food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare for their children; ensuring that they attend school; and making sure they are supervised properly.

Parents also have a financial obligation to their children. This typically means they are responsible for providing financial support until the child reaches adulthood. This may include paying for food, housing, clothing, education, and healthcare.

It’s important to note that parental obligation may not end when a child turns 18 or graduates from high school. If a child has disabilities or otherwise needs additional care and support, parental obligations may continue into the child's adulthood.

Uniform Parentage Act

The Uniform Parentage Act (UPA) is a set of laws that govern the determination of paternity. It sets out the legal rights and responsibilities of parents regardless of whether they are married. The UPA applies in many states.

Under the UPA, a person is presumed to be the father of a child in the following situations:

  • The mother and father attempted to marry before the child was born. However, for any number of reasons, the marriage was invalid, so the mother and father weren't actually married when the child was born.
  • The mother and father remain unmarried after the child's birth, but the father acknowledged in writing that he is the father, the father’s name was added to the child's birth certificate, or he pays child support under a written, voluntary, and signed promise to pay.
  • The unmarried father welcomes the minor child into his home as his own, supporting and caring for the child.

Parental duties don’t end with divorce

During divorce, one parent may be awarded primary shared parenting responsibilities. Even if both parents have overnight visits with the child, one parent may have slightly more time with them. Therefore, that parent may end up shouldering slightly more of the financial burden. To counteract this, the court may create a child support order to be paid to the primary parent. 

Child support modification

Child support modification is possible even after a divorce settlement has been reached. For example, if life circumstances change for either parent, they may request an increase or decrease in support from the court.

A judge will weigh numerous factors when making a decision about child support modification. As an example, if the paying parent were to lose their job, the court may pause or greatly reduce the amount that parent must pay. Once they get a new job, the court would likely increase the payments again.

Presumed paternity

Paternity is presumed when a couple is married and the wife gives birth. This places a legal burden on both parents to provide support for the child.

Fathers can challenge this presumption, however. A man may challenge paternity if he believes the mother was unfaithful during their relationship and that another man is the father. In this case, the man who challenges paternity may be seeking to avoid paying child support for a child who isn’t his. To be successful, he would have to prove that another man was the biological father. This may require DNA testing and court orders.

A petition for a paternity suit can be filed at any time – even years after the child is born. 

Challenged paternity

Paternity proceedings, sometimes called paternity suits, are court actions seeking to determine the paternity of a child. These suits can be brought by the mother seeking child support from a father. They can also be brought by a father attempting to get child custody or a man trying to prove he isn't the father.

A paternity proceeding can happen in a few different ways. 

Sometimes, a mother files a petition with the court asking for a determination of paternity. 

The court may order genetic testing to determine paternity. Testing can be done with blood or DNA samples. If the testing confirms the man is the father, the court will issue an order establishing paternity.

Several outcomes are possible. The most common outcome is that the court orders the father to pay child support. The father may also be ordered to provide health insurance for the child and to contribute to expenses like daycare and education. In some cases, the father may be ordered to have visitation or even custody of the child.

Note: A paternity proceeding does not always result in a court order. In some cases, the parties reach an agreement outside of court that establishes paternity. This agreement can be legally binding with the same consequences as a court order.

Sometimes, a man files a petition with the court asking for a determination of paternity.

This is a way for a man to dispute whether he is the biological parent of a child. There are a number of reasons why he might do this:

  • He might want to establish his legal right as a father.
  • He might want to be involved in the child’s life.
  • He might want to provide financial support.
  • If he is not the father, he might want to avoid paying financial support.
  • He might want access to medical information about the child.

Because paternity rights for a married couple automatically apply to the father, there may be a situation where a biological father has no parental rights, and a man who is not the biological father has parental rights. This is a ripe situation for paternity to be contested.

Establishing paternity

DNA testing

DNA testing is often the best way to prove or disprove paternity. Paternity DNA testing can be done with or without the participation of the child’s mother. It’s a reliable way to determine paternity, and it’s generally accepted by courts as proof of paternity. 

Special master

A special master is a person appointed by a court to hear and decide specific issues in a case. Special masters are often used in paternity actions to help determine the father of a child. They may be appointed by the court to make any number of rulings in a case, including but not limited to:

  • Determining the best interests of the child
  • Determining custody and visitation arrangements
  • Ruling on the admissibility of evidence
  • Assessing the financial resources of the parties involved
  • Making recommendations to the court on any matter relevant to the case

There are a number of reasons why a couple might use a special master in a paternity action. One is to help determine the father of a child. A special master can make rulings on a variety of issues including custody and visitation arrangements, admissibility of evidence, and the financial resources of the parties involved. They can also make recommendations to the court on matters relevant to the case. This can be helpful in resolving disputes quickly and efficiently.

Paternity suit tips

If you're looking to challenge paternity, it's important to know that it isn't an easy process. It's legally complex, and there will be lots of inquiries into extremely personal parts of your life. It's also a highly emotional process; some people say the emotional difficulty of a paternity suit surpasses the legal complexity.

Here are some tips to help you through it.

  • Take your time. Working through a paternity dispute can take months, so allow yourself grace and space as you work through your feelings.
  • Get informed. Knowing your rights is important, so research the laws and procedures in your state so you know what the court will require of you.
  • Seek support. It's important to have a good support system during this process, including people you can talk to who understand your situation and support you emotionally.
  • Be prepared. Paternity proceedings can be complex and emotionally draining, which is why it's important that you gather all the necessary evidence and documentation to make your case as strong as possible.

Read more about parental rights issues: Donor Agreements, Parental Rights, and Same-Sex Divorce: What to Know

Divorce Content Specialist & Lawyer
Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Legal Insights

Bryan is a non-practicing lawyer, HR consultant, and legal content writer. With nearly 20 years of experience in the legal field, he has a deep understanding of family and employment laws. His goal is to provide readers with clear and accessible information about the law, and to help people succeed by providing them with the knowledge and tools they need to navigate the legal landscape. Bryan lives in Orlando, Florida.