Paternity & Paternity Tests

What is paternity?

Paternity means fatherhood. Some states require a child's paternity to be established prior to or in the course of custody proceedings.

Establishing paternity is important because it allows the court to assign child support and other obligations to the correct person.

Once paternity has been established, whether by DNA testing or agreement of the parents, the father has all the rights and responsibilities of a legal parent.

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How long does a father have to establish paternity?

While a handful of U.S. states don't place any time limit on paternity establishment, most will only establish paternity until the child's early adulthood.

For example, in states such as North Carolina, you can only bring a paternity petition until the child turns 18. In Illinois, the deadline is the child's 20th birthday. In New Jersey, it's their 23rd birthday. Exceptions apply in certain scenarios.

You may face additional limits. For instance, in Illinois, if you want to challenge paternity, you have two years from the date you learn the relevant facts.

It's always wise to establish paternity as soon as possible.

Can paternity be established before the baby is born?

You can start the process of establishing paternity before the baby is born.

Parents can sign an Acknowledgement of Paternity before the birth.

You can also test the DNA of a fetus.

One option is drawing the mother's blood to find free-floating fetal DNA. The chance of finding this DNA increases with gestational age.

As a second option, a doctor can extract amniotic fluid or other tissue from inside the mother with a long needle. It's as accurate as testing the mother's blood, but it involves higher risks, including an increased chance of miscarriage.

Some parents decide to do fetal DNA testing so the father can begin bonding with the baby before birth. They may also want to know that the child's medical history and access to social benefits (like veteran's benefits) are accurate from day one.

How do you get a paternity test?

You could simply buy one at a pharmacy or online. But this requires everyone to participate voluntarily, and the results won't be accepted by a court.

If you need results you can submit to court, you have two options.

Your first option is to work directly with an accredited lab. Again, everyone involved will have to participate voluntarily.

Your second option is to have the court order a paternity test once you've filed a paternity petition or child support petition. This way the court can require the father and child to participate. The court may even offer testing on-site. Sometimes the child support office covers the cost of testing; if yours doesn't, the court will decide who must pay.

How does a paternity test work?

A paternity test determines whether or not a man is the biological father of a child.

DNA is collected from the child and the potential father, either by taking a blood sample from each or by swabbing the insides of their cheeks to collect loose cells.

Then, the DNA is spliced to see if the two share any chromosomes. Every person has 46 chromosomes — 23 from each parent — so a father and his child share 23 chromosomes.

Why would I need to take a paternity test?

There are many situations where a man may need to take a DNA test.

When a married woman gives birth, her husband is assumed to be the child's father. If either parent thinks this may be inaccurate, they may want to do a paternity test. However, this would not be necessary for custody proceedings.

If a mother has been in an exclusive relationship with a man, they can establish paternity by signing papers stating that he is the father. That man can take a paternity test to confirm his biological relationship to the child if he wants to.

If a mother isn't sure who the father of her child is, or if the man she names as the father wants proof, a paternity test can answer any questions. In these cases, the court often requires paternity to be established prior to ruling on child custody.

How long do paternity tests take?

Performing the test takes minutes.

Results are usually ready in one to five business days. Some companies will expedite them for an extra fee.

Of course, if you go through a court or child-support office, the process of filling out forms, getting a court order, performing the test and getting results could take weeks or months.

How accurate are paternity tests?

Paternity tests are extremely accurate. If the compared DNA matches, it means there is a 99.9% possibility that the man is the child's father.

If the DNA does not match, the man tested is not the child's father.

Is a paternity test required for child support?

A test is not required if both parents legally acknowledge who the father is.

If parents don't agree on who the legal father is, you will probably need a DNA test before the court will order child support.

What rights do fathers have once paternity is established?

If you're found to be the father of a child, you will have parental rights and responsibilities. You will have the right to visit and help raise the child. You will also have the responsibility to provide for your child financially, emotionally and physically.

Most states do not discriminate against parents based on gender, so a father's child custody rights are the same as the mother's.

However, you may need to protect your parental rights in court if they're called into question.

How can I ensure my parental rights are protected?

If you want to maintain your parental rights and be actively involved in your child's life, it's crucial that you develop a parenting plan (also called a custody agreement) with the mother.

A parenting plan sets out rules about a child's care and upbringing.

You can have a lawyer write your plan, or you can do it yourself with the Custody X Change app.

Think of what's best for your child above all. But you can also make sure you get a fair custody agreement as a dad.

What should I include in my parenting plan / custody agreement?

A comprehensive parenting plan should contain:

  • A description of the legal custody and physical custody each parent shall have
  • A detailed visitation schedule that states the days and times the child will spend with each parent regularly, as well as on holidays, special occasions and vacations
  • A list of parenting stipulations — anything necessary, from who will schedule the child's medical appointments to which belongings the child will keep at each home
  • An approach for modifying the plan in the future, should the needs of the child change
  • A dispute resolution method the parents will use to resolve arguments about the plan

Use the Custody X Change parenting plan template to make sure you don't forget any essential items.

The court typically approves parenting plans that both parents agree to, but only if the plan is in the best interest of the child. Assess your child's unique needs as you write your plan.

How can Custody X Change help me reach an agreement with my ex?

Follow these steps to reach an agreement:

  • Create a parenting plan and schedule for your child with Custody X Change (including any suggestions that you like from your ex).
  • Share your plan with her digitally, or print a copy.
  • Make edits she requests, or make your own edits to suggest compromises.
  • Have your ex review the revised plan.
  • Continue in this manner until you reach a full agreement.

Once you reach an agreement, your document will be ready for the court to review.

If you don't reach a full agreement, you can bring the portions you disagree on to a mediator or to court.

When you use Custody X Change documents to help you negotiate successfully, you remove personal conflict from the equation. You can both focus on the facts, and you don't even have to meet face-to-face.

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