When a married couple in Georgia has a child together, paternity is rarely an issue. This is because the law says that if a couple was legally married, the husband is assumed to be the baby's father.
But when unmarried people have a child, they must take certain steps to ensure that a legal father is named for the child. This process is known as "paternity." Parents can also take additional steps to ensure financial support and shared custody rights. Unless the parents take these formal steps, even the most loving father-child relationship will not have the same legal status as the relationship between a child and parents who are married.
It's very important for unmarried parents to understand that before paternity is established, the child's birth mother has all legal rights and custody to the child. Unless the father goes through an additional process (known as "legitimation"), he will not have any rights to his child. He must obtain a court order granting him custody rights.
Georgia law provides unmarried couples with two basic ways to establish paternity of their children.
First, the parents can sign a voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity. This is a basic form which simply acknowledges that the parents agree that the biological father is also the child's legal father. Both parents must sign the form, either at the hospital when the child is born or later, at the State Office of Vital Records or the Vital Records Office in the county where the child was born. If the form isn't signed at the hospital, only the mother's name will appear on the birth certificate—so if it is important to the father to have his name on the birth certificate, he should sign the form at the hospital. The only requirements for the paternity acknowledgement form are that it be signed by both parents, that the mother give birth in Georgia, and that the father is the biological parent. The parents must sign in front of a notary public (a public official who has a special license to witness solemn legal events) and present a photo identification.
The Acknowledgment of Paternity form is filed with the Putative Father Registry of Georgia's Department of Public Health. ("Putative" means "alleged" or "claimed.") The Registry is important because it ensures that biological fathers are notified if anyone wants to adopt their children.
It's important to know that the Acknowledgment of Paternity creates an obligation for both parents to provide financial support and health insurance for their child. However, it does nothing to establish custody or visitation rights for the father. If the father wants custody and visitation rights to the child, then he must sign the "legitimation" section on the paternity acknowledgement form. This section is at the bottom of the acknowledgement form. Legitimating the child doesn't guarantee the father equal rights. In fact, it doesn't give him rights at all. What it does give him is the opportunity to go to court and ask a judge to grant him custody and visitation rights. It also grants the child the right to inherit property from the father and to receive medical information about the father and the father's family. Voluntary legitimation (i.e., signing the form) has to happen within the first year of the child's life or the father will have to go to court and ask for a court order legitimating the child.
The other way that paternity can be established is that the mother, father, or a government official (typically from the Division of Child Support Services, or DCSS) can file a paternity action with the court. This would result in an involuntary determination by the court (meaning, a court order) that the putative, or alleged, father is actually the child's biological and legal father.
Genetic testing is available if there is doubt as to the identity of the child's biological father. For those who use DCSS to establish paternity, there is a nominal charge for genetic testing. You can call the Paternity Program at 1-866-296-8262 for more information or to find a nearby lab.
Your child benefits from the security of an enhanced bond with both parents and the certainty of having a father's name on the child's birth certificate. Financial pressure and poverty are also diminished because the child is now entitled to receive regular financial support. This includes medical expenses and basic child support. It also means that your child may qualify for certain services and benefits, like the father's Social Security benefits. If a father has health insurance or similar benefits through employment, establishing paternity through acknowledgment ensures that the child can take advantage of them.
Fathers have the peace of mind of knowing that their names will be on their children's birth certificates. If they sign the legitimation and then get a court order for custody and visitation, they are entitled to additional rights. The child can inherit from the father and learn about the father's medical history. Both parents can begin to shoulder the load of parenthood in a co-equal fashion, sharing time and love with their child and responsibility for the child's well-being.
The Georgia Department of Human Services has prepared a brochure with basic facts about paternity and contact information for Georgia's Paternity Acknowledgment Program. There is also a detailed FAQ and a web page explaining the process.
The Georgia Department of Public Health maintains the Putative Father Registry, and houses the form that fathers need to register.
For residents of Fulton County, I-CAN is a free, web-based service that can be used to prepare forms in a legitimation case. Other forms and instructions for different locations in Georgia are available through GeorgiaLegalAid.org's Legitimation and Fathers' Rights section.