What is a Paternity Suit?

Paternity suits, also known as “establishment hearings”, “filiation hearings”, or “parentage actions” and “paternity proceedings” are  legal actions which are used in order to determine whether a man is the father of a child, and to (accordingly) confer the associated legal rights and obligations of parenthood granted under Florida law. (Florida Statute §742.011, 742.031; see Kendrick v. Everheart, 390 So. 2d 53 (Fla. 1980)). These actions are frequently initiated by either the biological mother or biological father in order to start the process in collecting child support and/or in order to formalize a “parenting plan”. 

Paternity questions are very common in family law. Paternity frequently becomes of concern when a nonmarital or illegitimate child is born; meaning the child’s parents were unmarried at the time of his/her birth. A paternity action represents a legal proceeding that officially states the father’s position has the child’s biological parent. 

How are Paternal Relationships Established?

Paternal relationships are established in a few different ways. Firstly, a child born to a married couple is presumed by the state to be the child of the husband. Secondly, an illegitimate child whose parents are unmarried may have a father’s name designated on the birth certificate. If the father’s name is listed, uncontested on the birth certificate, a parental relationship is established. If two unmarried parents acknowledge parentage, they can legally enter into a parenting agreement with the aid of their attorneys. This arrangement can establish the paternal relationship legally as well as outline custody, visitation and child support. Thirdly, paternal relationships can be established by filing a paternity action that requires the alleged father’s response to say yes, no, or maybe. In the no and maybe cases, the father will undergo DNA testing to determine their position as the child’s father. 

Why is a Paternity Action Filed?

There are a number of reasons why a paternity action is filed, but there are only four parties that can file. The parties that have the ability to file include the mother, father, child, and the state. If child’s father is interested in gaining custody or visitation rights, he may file a paternity suit to establish himself as a parent of the child. Mothers seeking child support may also need to file a paternity action; the child’s biological father needs to be determined prior to demanding child support. A child can file a paternity action if he/she seeks a relationship with the parent or if death benefits are an issue. And, the state can file a paternity action to obtain reimbursement for support provided to the child or the child’s mother. State support includes welfare benefits such as cash assistance, food, and health care aid.  The state is able to file a paternity action if there is an open case involving child neglect or abuse. Most commonly, a paternity complaint is filed by the child’s mother who is looking identify legal paternity in an attempt to gain support. 

When is a Paternity Complaint Filed?

Most often paternity complaints are filed while the supposed father is still alive. This ensures that the alleged father has the opportunity to respond to the allegation and defend their position. It is still possible to file a paternity complaint if the father is or becomes deceased. However, this may be a bit more difficult as the alleged father isn’t available to provide any supporting documents or information. 

Most states require that the child be born prior to initiating any paternity complaints. A prenatal paternity test can be completed. However, this is not upheld in all courts. 

How does a Paternity Action Work?

The paternity action is initiated with the filing of a complaint or petition. This filing is usually referred to as a “complaint to establish paternity”. The petition typically identifies why the filing party believes the specific man is the father of the child. There are several steps in filing a paternity complaint. These require that a host of court forms be filled out completely and be accompanied by supporting documents requested by the court. Supporting document may include a birth certificate, marriage license, etc. The next step is the payment of the court’s fees and lastly, the serving of the alleged father with a copy of the complaint. 

After the suit is filed, the supposed father of the child is allotted a specific amount of time to file a written response. The supposed father has three options in responding to the suit, the first of which is to respond and acknowledge the position as the child’s father, allowing the court to document the relationship accordingly. The second of these options is to contest the petition, and the third option is to acknowledge the possibility of parentage and request a confirmation DNA test. A paternity action is the time and opportunity to express any doubts about the possibility of being a child’s father. Simply accepting the allegations will concrete an individual as the father of a child, despite later negative DNA testing. The court doesn’t want to play musical chairs, who’s the father. If an individual acknowledges themselves as the child’s father, the court will be stubborn in reversing this action, regardless of DNA results. 

If a supposed father contests the paternity action, he will need to appear in court as well as agree to DNA testing. Some courts will require that the alleged father pay for the testing.  Fathers who know for certain that they are the child’s parent can forgo these fees by acknowledging their parentage. However, fathers who have any doubts should undergo the DNA testing regardless of the cost. DNA testing is extremely accurate in determining parentage. 

If the DNA testing can confirm the parent-child relationship, the court will establish a child support order as required by state law. Most states calculate child support based on several different factors; how much time the child spends with the parent, the income of the parents, and the special needs of the child. 

Once parentage is determined, it is also the responsibility of the court to lay out the arrangement of the parent-child relationship. In addition to child support, this includes establishing a child custody arrangement, as well as visitation schedule. Other orders that the court can establish is the child’s ability to be on the father’s health insurance, any social security benefits or issues of inheritance. 

What is the Outcome of a Paternal Action?

There are several possible outcomes of paternal actions. The simplest of these is if the requested DNA test results are negative for a parent-child relationship. This obviously ends the case, and no further paternal actions can be filed related to this alleged father and child. 

If DNA testing identifies a parent-child relationship, the court will establish a legal arrangement including child support, custody, and visitation rights. The father is then legally responsible for abiding by the child support order and the parents can not waive this. The state has the ability to recoup the money they paid on behalf of the child in the form of public assistance. Failing to abide by a child support order can result in suspension of a driver’s license in some states, withhold of a tax refund, wage garnishment, or even jail time. 

If a paternal action is being filed in an attempt to gain death or disability benefits, the child may have access to these finances after the paternal action concludes his/her relationship to the alleged father. 

Speak with a Family Law Attorney

Establishing paternity represents a lifelong commitment to parenting a child. This is a very serious situation. As such, issues of paternity can be very complex and are best handled with the aid of a family law attorney. Even prior to initiating a paternity suit, a family law attorney should be consulted. A skilled attorney may be able to identify other options and provide advice that can help to avoid a lengthy, expensive court process. Both parties involved, the individual interested in filing the paternity suit, and the individual on the receiving end, would benefit from the legal assistance of a family law attorney.

If you are interested in either initiating a paternity action or have just been served with paperwork, give us a call at +1.786.309.8588