The Rights of Unmarried Fathers

The parental rights of fathers have historically been tied to their being married to the baby’s mother at the time of childbirth. However, as the percentage of births to unmarried mothers has increased throughout recent history, there has been a corresponding rise of biological fathers who are not married to their children’s mothers. As society has become more accepting of non-marital children, birth fathers have sought to establish their rights to their children – including whether to parent their children, sustain a relationship with them, and exercise consent in the adoption process.

Over the past several decades, unmarried fathers have challenged the termination of their parental rights under the 14th amendment in cases in which birth mothers relinquished their children for adoption. In a series of cases involving unmarried fathers, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the constitutional protection of such a father’s parental rights when he has established a substantial relationship with his child. The court found that the existence of a biological link between a child and an unmarried father gives the father the opportunity to establish a substantial relationship, which it defined as the father’s commitment to responsibilities of parenthood, as demonstrated by being involved or attempting to be involved in the child’s upbringing.

States’ Definitions of “Father” 

While there is no standard definition of “father” in statutes across the states, there are a number of terms that describe the status of a parent-child relationship between a man and his child. The term “legal father” generally refers to a man married to the mother at the time of conception or birth of their child whose paternity has been otherwise determined by a court of competent jurisdiction. When the parents of a child are not married to one another, statues use an array of terms to describe the status of the man who may be the biological father. These terms include the following:

  • Putative Father: a man who is the alleged biological father of a child but whose paternity has not been legally established.
  • Alleged Father: a man who alleges himself to be, or is alleged to be, the genetic father or a possible genetic father of a child but whose paternity has not been determined.
  • Acknowledged Father: a man who has established a father-child relationship by signing an acknowledgement of paternity.
  • Adjudicated Father: a man who has been adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction to be the father of a child.
  • Presumed Father: a man who is recognized as the father of a child until the status is rebutted or confirmed in a judicial proceeding.

In over half the states in the U.S., a man may be presumed to be the father of a child in any of the following circumstances:

  • He and the child’s mother are or were married to each other, and the child is born during the marriage or within 300 days after the marriage ended.
  • Before the birth of the child, he and the child’s mother attempted to marry, and the marriage is or could be annulled, and the child is born during the marriage or within 300 days after the marriage is terminated.
  • He has acknowledged his paternity in writing.
  • He is obligated to support the child, either by voluntary agreement or court order.
  • While the child is a minor, he has resided with the child and openly claimed the child as his biological child.

Paternity Registries

Before a man can assert any rights with regard to the care of a non-marital child, he must first establish his paternity of the child. Many stages have provisions for a father to voluntarily acknowledge paternity or the possibility of paternity of a child born outside of marriage and record the fact in a putative father registry.

Acknowledgement of paternity or registration with a putative father registry ensures certain rights for an unmarried father, such as the right to receive notice of court proceedings regarding the child, petitions for adoption, and actions to terminate parental rights. An acknowledged father also may seek visitation with the child and usually will be required to provide financial support to the child.

Alternative Means of Establishing Paternity

In over half the states in the U.S., a man may consent to the placement of his name as father on a child’s certificate of birth as a means of asserting his paternity. A man, the child, the child’s mother, or other interested persons also may petition the court to establish a man’s paternity. The court, after weighing all available evidence, will make a determination of the child’s paternity.

In 41 states, a court may order the alleged father, the child, the child’s mother, and any other man making a claim of paternity to submit to blood and other genetic tests as a means of determining the biological parentage of a child. When the results of genetic tests reveal that there is a high statistical probability that a man is the biological father of a child, the court will make a judgement of paternity.

Required Information

States differ in the information they require for registration or acknowledgement of paternity. The information that is needed to complete the registration typically includes the following:

  • The full name, Social Security number, date of birth, and address of each parent
  • The full name, date of birth, and residence of the child
  • A signed, witnessed statement by the birth mother consenting to the acknowledgement of paternity
  • A signed, witnessed statement by the birth father acknowledging his paternity
  • The signatures of the mother of the child and the biological father
  • The date the registration or acknowledgement was completed.

In many states, the acknowledgment of paternity form also will provide essential information to the registrants, including the following:

  • A statement of rights and responsibilities, including any rights afforded to a minor parent
  • A statement of alternatives to and consequences of signing the acknowledgment
  • Information concerning the legal implications of completing the form, including the procedure for establishing parentage, parental rights and responsibilities, and child support obligations
  • A statement that the man who signs the form is acknowledging that he is the biological father of the child named in the form and that he assumes the parental duty support of that child.

Access to Registry Records

Access to information maintained in paternity registries also varies from state to state. Many jurisdictions permit certain persons access to registry records. In general, these are people with a direct interest in a case. Typically, persons entitled to access include birth mothers, courts, attorneys, licensed adoption agencies, prospective adoptive parents, state departments of social services, state offices of child support enforcement, registries of states, or any other person upon a court order for good cause.


Source: Child Welfare:

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