What Is a Paternity Suit?

When we think of paternity, most of us think of fathers. But legally, paternity – also called parentage in some states – is the determination of a child's father for the purpose of establishing the father's legal responsibilities.

How is paternity established?

There are different ways to legally establish paternity. One way is for the father to sign an acknowledgment of paternity form. Another way is for the father to be listed on the child's birth certificate. In some states, if a couple is married and the wife gives birth, it is simply assumed that the father is her husband.

If a father is not listed on a birth certificate, or if he denies paternity, a paternity test and lawsuit may be required.

What is a paternity suit?

A paternity suit is a legal action brought to establish parental rights and responsibilities. This type of lawsuit can be filed by the mother or father of a child. To establish paternity in a court proceeding, one of three methods may be used: genetic testing, witness testimony, or circumstantial evidence. 

Genetic testing

Genetic testing is the most reliable means of establishing paternity. It’s done by extracting DNA from the child and the alleged father and comparing the samples to see if they match. 

If no DNA is available from the child, paternity may be established through witness testimony or circumstantial evidence. 

Witness testimony

Witness testimony can include statements from people who have knowledge of the relationship between the child and father, such as friends or family members. 

Circumstantial evidence

Circumstantial evidence can include things like birth certificates, financial records, and Social Security information.

Once paternity has been established in a court proceeding, the father then has certain rights and responsibilities with respect to the child. He has the right to visitation and custody, and he may be ordered to pay child support. The father may also be required to provide medical insurance for the child.

Why would someone file a paternity suit?

Someone might file a paternity suit for a variety of reasons. A mother may seek to have the father's name added to the birth certificate so she does not have to bear sole responsibility for the child. A father may want legal recognition in order to gain access to visitation rights or custody rights, or he may want his name on the birth certificate.

A paternity suit is commonly used when a couple has separated or divorced and the father seeks to establish his legal rights and responsibilities with respect to the child. It may be filed if there are questions about who the father of the child is or if there is disagreement over child support payments. A paternity suit can also help ensure that a father's rights and responsibilities are formally recognized by the state.

Sometimes, a mother may be seeking child support from the father. If they aren’t married, she'd first need to establish paternity. Consider this scenario:

Alice is a single mother struggling to make ends meet. She has a four-year-old son, Alexander, whom she’s raising on her own. Alexander's father is nowhere to be found, and Alice would like to seek child support from him. Before she can do that, however, she needs to establish paternity. Otherwise, the man in question could simply deny being Alexander's father, and there would be nothing Alice could do about it.

In order to establish paternity, Alice would need to go to court and present evidence that she and the man are indeed the parents of Alexander. This could include things like birth certificates, Social Security numbers, or DNA tests. If the court finds that the man is indeed Alexander's father, he may then be ordered to pay child support.

Other ways to establish paternity

Legal documents

A DNA test isn't the only way to establish paternity. Parents can sign a legal document attesting to the fact that they’re parents of a child. This usually occurs when both parents know they're the parents and don't want a drawn-out legal battle. Fathers often do this when they want a relationship with their child with the understanding that it will give them certain rights.

Presumption of parentage

In some states, there is something called a “presumption of parentage.” In California, for example, the law presumes a person is a parent under the following circumstances:

  • The father and mother were married at the conception or birth of the child
  • The father attempted to marry the mother during the time the child was conceived or born, even if the marriage wasn't valid.
  • The father and mother married after the child’s birth, and the father consented to the addition of his name on the birth certificate.
  • The father and mother married after the child’s birth, and the father subsequently supported the child.
  • A father welcomed the child into his home and treated the child as his own, even if it's later determined that he isn't the child's biological father.

Other states aren’t as accommodating. 

In Texas, the only ways to establish paternity are to have a DNA test or to sign an Acknowledgement of Paternity (AOP).

Utah is similar to Texas, offering limited ways to establish paternity: DNA testing, a judicial order, or the signing of a Voluntary Declaration of Paternity (VDP).

In Colorado, you can only establish paternity by voluntarily agreeing that you are the father or through a paternity suit. Both scenarios will lead to you gaining parental rights and responsibility for your child, including medical insurance.

Paternity issues for same-sex parents

Paternity can be an issue for same-sex parents. However, many states – including California – have started to take a similar approach to paternity as they do for heterosexual couples; they legally assume that married couples are the parents of their children. As of 2005, California recognizes both members of a couple as parents of a child if they are registered domestic partners. This gives them the same rights as any other parent without the hassle and frustration of a legal matter.

Glossary of paternity terms

Parentage: This is the legal establishment of a biological parent/child relationship. It can be established through a paternity suit, which is a legal action to determine the father of a child. Paternity suits are often necessary when parents are not married and the father is not listed on the child's birth certificate.

Paternal power: Also called “paternal rule,” this term refers to the legal authority a father has over his children. This power can be used to make decisions about a child's welfare, education, and health, among other things. Paternal power is an important tool for ensuring a child's well-being. It can be key to establishing a strong relationship between a father and child.

Presumed father: This is a man assumed to be the father of a child based on facts and circumstances. In most cases, a presumed father is the husband of the child's mother. If the husband is not the father, he has the right to contest the paternity suit.

Equitable father: An equitable father is one who has not been legally recognized as the father of the child but who has been acknowledged by both the father and the child as the child's father. When both father and child agree, it can make it easier to get through the paternity process.

Unwed father: An unwed father is someone without parental rights. Because the father was not married to the mother at the birth of the child, the father will have to file a paternity suit to establish fatherhood.

At Hello Divorce, we’re highly familiar with the ins and outs of divorce, custody, and parentage issues. Click here to read about our online services, or visit our calendar to schedule a free 15-minute informational call.


Paternity. Ken Paxton, Attorney General of Texas.
Establish Who's a Parent. Colorado Judicial Branch.


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.