Paternity in California

Learn how you can establish paternity and why it's beneficial for your child in California.

By , Attorney · University of New Hampshire School of Law

As anyone who lives there knows, California is a very progressive state. Family law is no exception, as lawmakers continually try to keep up with the needs of nontraditional families. The focus of this article is on paternity law in California. If you have questions about paternity after reading this article, you should contact an experienced family law attorney for help.

Overview of Paternity in California

In California, the word, "paternity" is used interchangeably with "parentage" or "parental relationship." Establishing paternity means that either the parents of a child or the courts have determined who a child's father is. There are some instances where the law assumes the identity of the father, such as:

  • when the child is born during a marriage, the mother's husband is presumed to be the child's father, and
  • when a man has been living with the child and mother in a family-like manner, and the man has demonstrated a commitment to the child, the man is presumed to be the child's father, even if he is not the actual biological father.

Absent these two circumstances, paternity will need to be established.

How Paternity is Established

The simplest way to establish paternity is voluntarily. This is where a child's father and mother agree to sign a "Voluntary Declaration of Paternity." When an unmarried woman gives birth in a hospital or other medical setting, the medical care providers must give her (and the alleged father if he's present) information on the voluntary declaration of paternity or "VDP" form. By signing the form, the mother and father are acknowledging they are the parents of the child and that the father is the child's legal father. His name can then be added to the child's birth certificate and he has parental rights and responsibilities to the child.

If either parent is under 18 when he or she signs the VDP, the declaration will not become effective until 60 days after the underage parent turns 18 years old.

The second way to establish paternity is through a paternity action in court. Under California law, any of the following persons or agencies may ask the court for an order on paternity:

  • the child's mother
  • the man who believes he's the father of the child or who has been identified as the father (also known as the "putative father" or the "alleged father")
  • the local child support agency that is providing services to the mother, or
  • an adoption agency.

If the child is under 12, he or she may be considered a party in the case. If the child is over 12 years of age, he or she will be considered a party in the case. In either instance, the court will name a representative for the child, usually called a "guardian ad litem." The guardian ad litem will appear in court on the child's behalf and represent what is in the child's best interest.

Starting the Case

If a mom uses California Child Support Services, the agency has the authority to require the mother, child and alleged father to submit to genetic tests to determine the biological father. Genetic testing is required when the mother also requests child support or in connection with a mother's request for welfare or other public benefits.

If the case is brought to court, the county superior court has the authority to order genetic testing on the mother, alleged father and child. If the alleged father refuses to cooperate, the judge may consider the dad's noncooperation as evidence of paternity.

In addition, the court can order:

  • child support
  • health insurance for the child
  • physical and legal custody of the child, meaning where the child will live and whether one or both parents will be able to make decisions for the child
  • visitation, which means when the non-custodial parent will see the child
  • payment of court costs, meaning the fees the court charges to start the case
  • payment of the genetic testing, and
  • payment of either party's reasonable attorney's fees.

Benefits of Establishing Paternity

The obvious benefits for both mother and child are financial support and health insurance for the child. The child may also benefit from having a dad involved in his or her life. Additionally, a child may be eligible for other public benefits if the father is disabled or a veteran. The child would be an heir to the father's estate as well.

Many men who may not be aware that they are fathers welcome the opportunity to raise a child. There are situations where the child's mother may interfere with the father's right to be a part of the child's life. In California, when a bio-dad wants to support and care for his child, but the mom or a third party interferes with his efforts, the dad is called a "Kelsey S. father." In that case, the father would have to assert his rights to raise the child by getting court orders.


The California Courts provides an online self-help guide to parentage, including step-by-step instructions for starting or responding to a paternity case. The Legal Aid Association of California also provides self-help information on paternity.

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