Are You My “Legal” Father? Establishing Paternity in Pennsylvania

October 20, 2014

With many couples choosing to cohabitate and forgo the tradition of marriage, the number of unmarried fathers has skyrocketed. Last year, the federal government reported that 40.7% of all 2012 births were “out-of-wedlock.” In Pennsylvania, paternity is automatically established if the parents of a child are married, but the same is not true when the parents are unmarried. For unmarried fathers who wish to have the full benefits and legal rights of fatherhood, it is imperative that paternity be established. While every child has a biological father, not every child has a “legal” father. So, how does an unmarried father go from “baby’s daddy” to “legal” parent?

In Pennsylvania, prior to the child’s 18th birthday, paternity can be established in one of two ways, either voluntarily or involuntarily:

1.            Voluntarily

When a child is born to an unmarried woman, the possible father of that child may voluntarily acknowledge paternity by completing and filing a voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity form with the Department of Public Welfare (DPW). True to its name, the acknowledgment of paternity is completely voluntary. To establish “legal” paternity, the form must be signed by both the child’s mother and possible father. When a completed form is submitted, it is considered conclusive proof of paternity and confers upon the father the legal rights and obligations of fatherhood. Many couples utilize this method of establishing paternity because of its ease, completion of the form itself establishes paternity—there is no requirement that blood or DNA tests be performed to substantiate the claim of paternity nor is court approval required.

What If The Parents Don’t Agree On Paternity, Can Paternity Still Be Voluntarily Established?

An essential part of the voluntary acknowledgment of paternity is the agreement of both the unmarried mother and the possible father. Without the written consent of both parties, voluntary paternity cannot be established. If a child’s mother refuses to sign the form, the father can still move forward with the voluntary acknowledgement. Although the incomplete form itself will not establish “legal” fatherhood, it does give the father the right to be notified of any proceeding to terminate any parental rights involving the child.

Once Paternity Is Voluntarily Established, Can It Be Cancelled Or Challenged?

For those who have second thoughts after submitting the voluntary acknowledgment form, the established paternity can be cancelled, but the parties must act quickly to do so. Either party can cancel the voluntary paternity by submitting a signed written statement to DPW. The written statement to cancel paternity must be submitted within 60 days after date the Acknowledgment of Paternity form was signed. There is no requirement about the content of the cancellation statement, but at the very least, the statement should include the child’s name and the request to cancel the consent to paternity.

If a cancellation statement is not submitted within the 60 day timeframe, the paternity can still be challenged, but the grounds to challenge the paternity are limited. Paternity can only be challenged through the court system. Moreover, the challenge of paternity may only be based on fraud, duress or material mistake of fact. The challenger has the burden of proving fraud, duress or material mistake of fact occurred. For example, if a father’s signature was forged on the acknowledgment form, the father can challenge paternity on the grounds of fraud.

2.            Involuntarily

Unlike voluntary establishment of paternity, which is processed by DPW, paternity that is established involuntarily may only be done through a court proceeding. Paternity is commonly established during an action for child support, since paternity is a prerequisite for support—in this scenario, it is often the mother initiating the support action and requesting the establishment of paternity. In more rare instances, the possible father of a child wishes to establish paternity and Pennsylvania has a special action for this.  A possible father wishing to prove paternity must file a Complaint to Establish Paternity. In the complaint, the possible father must allege that he “believes that he may be the natural father” of the child. The possible father can also make a request for DNA testing to prove that he is the child’s father.  It is up to the court to determine if DNA testing is necessary to determine paternity. If the court determines that the possible father is in fact the child’s biological father, the court will issue an Order of Paternity, conferring the legal rights and responsibilities of fatherhood and adding the father’s name to the child’s birth certificate.

Effects of Establishing Paternity

Establishing paternity has a substantial impact on the lives of the child and its parents. “Legal” fatherhood gives the child the same rights (s)he would have been entitled to if his/her parents were married at the time of the child’s birth—meaning, the child has the right to support from its father, inheritance rights, and may also be covered under its father’s insurance benefits. Similarly, the now established “legal” father has the duty to support his child and can assert his claims for child custody or visitation. Due to the impact of establishing legal fatherhood, couples should consider the duties, benefits, and rights that come with paternity. Additionally, possible fathers who wish to definitively establish paternity and a permanent place in their child’s life should be aware of his options to be declared the child’s “legal” father.