Fatherhood and Divorce – Paternity and Custody Rights

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Fatherhood and Divorce – Paternity and Custody Rights

Fathers in the midst of a divorce face a unique set of challenges when it comes to questions of paternity and child custody rights. In the eyes of the world and the courts, fatherhood is a lot less definitive than motherhood. In child custody cases, there are often doubts or disputes regarding a child’s paternity. Whether you’re trying to prove or disprove the paternity of a child, there are some important things to keep in mind regarding paternity custody rights.

Paternity: Why It’s Important.  Paternity, or parentage, is a critical factor when determining the rights of divorcing couples with regards to their children. And it isn’t always cut and dry. The courts are concerned with legal parentage, and a child’s legal parent isn’t always his or her biological parent (and vice versa). Legal parentage determines the courts’ decisions on custody, visitation, and child support. The legal father of a child is, in short, responsible for that child’s well being. He also has the right to request time with that child.

But the real importance of establishing paternity is doing so for the best interest of the child. According to the California Courts on Parentage/Paternity, a child has the following rights and privileges with regards to his or her legal parents:

  • Financial support from both parents;
  • Legal documentation identifying both parents;
  • Having the names of both parents on the child’s birth certificate;
  • Access to family medical records and history;
  • Health and life insurance coverage from either parent;
  • The right to inherit from either parent; and
  • The right to receive social security and veteran’s benefits, if available.

Determining Paternity. If a child’s parents are married when he or she is born, there’s usually no question about parentage. The law presumes that the husband is the father and the wife is the mother, so paternity is automatically established (in most cases). These same presumptions apply to parents who entered into a registered domestic partnership after January 2005.

When it comes to questions of fatherhood, the law presumes a man is a child’s parent if:

  • He was married to the child’s mother when the child was conceived or born;
  • He attempted to marry the mother (even if the marriage was not valid) and the child was conceived or born during the “marriage”;
  • He married the mother after the birth and agreed either to have his name on the birth certificate or to support the child; or
  • He welcomed the child into his home and openly acted as if the child was his own. This concept is called “parentage by estoppel” and means that the court can find that a man is the legal father, even if he is not the biological father, if he has always treated the child as his own.

Paternity Disputes and Testing. If a husband going through a divorce has any reason to believe that a child involved is not his biological kin, he can request paternity testing via a motion through the court or agreement of the parties. Paternity testing should be done as early as possible in the divorce process. DNA tests these days are 99.9 percent accurate, and have become more affordable. Whether the parent(s) or the court will pay for the test depends on the case in question.

If a paternity test confirms that he is not the biological father, he may not be legally responsible for child support. Keep in mind, though, that the court is concerned not only with legal paternity, but also with the best interest of the child. There are times when a husband may be ordered to pay child support even though he is not the child’s biological father.

On the other hand, if a husband is being denied visitation rights based on his wife’s claim that he is not the father of his child, he may want to request paternity testing as well. This sometimes happens in divorce proceedings where both parents are vying for custody of their children. The husband can request a DNA test and further motion the court for primary custody or primary residence with reasonable visitation to the mother.

It’s important to remember that fatherhood isn’t always a black or white issue. At no time is this more apparent than during a contentious divorce. If you’re facing the daunting prospect of this scenario, know your paternity custody rights and remember to keep the best interest of your children in mind. You can be confident that the courts will do their best to do the same. Sometimes custody rights are different than parental rights.  Be sure to see a family law attorney to help you wade through the applicable law and facts of your case.