If you're an unmarried parent in Georgia—or you weren't married to the other parent when your child was conceived—you may need to take steps to establish your child's legal paternity. Or you may want to prove that you are not the child's father if the mother is trying to collect child support from you. Once paternity is established, the man who's legally recognized as the biological father will have certain responsibilities toward the child. It won't mean he automatically has parental rights in Georgia, but he will have the opportunity to seek those rights.
Under Georgia law, there's a difference between being an alleged father, a biological father, and a legal father. Each status comes with different legal rights, both for the child and the father.
The law presumes that a man who was married to the mother when she gave birth (or when the child was conceived) is the child's legal and biological father. But there are ways to prove that another man was the biological father. Similarly, if the mother was unmarried, the man who fathered her child may establish his paternity. Then, once paternity is established, the biological father may seek to be declared as his child's legal father. (Ga. Code §§ 19-7-2, 19-7-20 (2022).)
Like all parents, biological fathers share a legal duty to support and protect their children until they turn 18 or become emancipated. (Ga. Code § 19-7-2 (2022).) So a child's mother—or another relative with custody of the child, such as a grandparent—may file a paternity petition in order to seek child support from the father.
Also, if the mother or other custodian is receiving public assistance on the child's behalf, or has applied for child support services from Georgia's Division of Child Support Services (DCSS, part of the state's Department of Human Resources), the agency may file a paternity petition.
Fathers may also want to establish their paternity as a first step to seeking legitimation, as well as to give their children the right receive Social Security and other federal benefits as the father's dependent. For the same reasons, unmarried couples may establish paternity together (more on that below). (Ga. Code § 19-7-43(a) (2022).)
Georgia provides two basic ways to establish paternity of a child whose father wasn't married to the mother: with a voluntary paternity acknowledgment or by seeking a court order establishing paternity (which the DCSS may handle). Unless both parents have already signed a paternity acknowledgement, a critical part of the process will be to get DNA tests for the mother, child, and the alleged father.
Unless the mother was married to another man within 10 months before the child was born, parents who aren't married to each other may establish their child's paternity by signing a voluntary acknowledgement of paternity. They won't need to go through a legal proceeding or get DNA tests, as long as both parents sign and submit the form.
The hospital should provide the acknowledgement form to the parents shortly after the child's birth if the father is present. When they sign at the hospital, the father's name will be on the birth certificate, and they can decide on the child's legal name. The hospital will then take care of submitting the form to the State Office of Vital Records.
If the parents didn't sign the form at the hospital, they may do so later at the vital records office for the state or in the county where the child was born. They could also sign the form anywhere in front of a notary and then submit it to the vital records office within 30 days. This will serve to establish the father's paternity, but his name won't be on the birth certificate.
Either parent may change their mind about the voluntary paternity acknowledgment—for instance, if one of them learns something that makes them think the acknowledged father is not actually the child's biological father. But to cancel the acknowledgment, one of them must submit a completed rescission form to the vital records office within 60 days after signing the acknowledgment (or before a court issues a child support order, if that happens sooner than 60 days). (Ga. Code § 19-7-46.1 (2022).)
If you apply for services from the Georgia DCSS, you can contact the agency to arrange DNA testing as a first step for establishing paternity. Usually, the mother applies for services, but noncustodial parents or family members with custody of the children may also apply to have paternity established.
The DCSS will order DNA tests for the alleged father, the mother, and the child. If the tests show that the alleged father is the biological father, he and the mother may then sign and submit a voluntary paternity acknowledgement. Otherwise, the agency will handle the next legal steps, unless a paternity case is already pending in the courts (more on that process below).
If you're the alleged father, the mother, or a relative with custody of the child, you may also file a petition directly with the court to establish paternity. The judge may then order the mother, child, and alleged father to submit to DNA testing. If you're requesting a testing order, you'll need to submit a sworn statement spelling out the facts that establish a reasonable possibility that the alleged father did or did not have sexual contact with the mother at the time of conception.
If the test results show that the alleged father is not the biological father, the judge may dismiss the dependency petition (on request). If the test results don't exclude him, he and the mother may sign a consent order establishing his paternity.
Otherwise, there will be a trial in the case. Both the mother and the alleged father may be required to testify at the trial. When credible DNA testing shows at least a 97% probability that the alleged father is the biological father, Georgia law presumes that's the case unless there's clear and convincing evidence otherwise.
After considering all the evidence, the judge will issue an order that either establishes paternity or finds that the alleged father is not the biological father. If paternity is established, the judge may also include child support orders. (Ga. Code §§ 19-4-43, 19-7-45, 19-7-46, 19-7-49, 19-7-51 (2022).)
Georgia law does not set any deadline for signing a voluntary paternity declaration or filing a paternity petition. However, if you're an unmarried father who hopes to become the child's legal father, it's best that you act as soon as you can. When judges are deciding whether it's in a child's best interests to grant a legitimation petition, they consider how quickly an alleged father stepped forward and took responsibility for the child.
There's no fee to establish paternity through a voluntary acknowledgment.
When you seek to establish paternity through the DCSS, you'll need to pay a small fee ($25) to apply for services. Also, you might have to pay for the cost of the DNA tests ($66 total for the mother, child, and alleged father), depending on the results:
(Ga. Code §§ 19-7-43(f) (2022).)
DNA testing from a private laboratory costs more. You'll also face additional costs if you hire a lawyer to pursue or fight a court case to establish paternity (more below on that decision).
When the DCSS has ordered you to submit to a paternity test, you'll have the opportunity to contest the order. However, if the order still stands, you could face serious consequences for refusing get a DNA test. For example:
(Ga. Code §§ 19-7-43(f), 19-7-45, 19-7-46(c) (2022).)
You don't need a lawyer's help to establish paternity by signing a voluntary paternity acknowledgment. If you weren't able to sign the form at the hospital, you can download a fillable PDF from the Georgia Department of Public Health's Paternity Acknowledgment webpage. The same page also provides the form to cancel a paternity acknowledgment, as well as an FAQ with more information about establishing paternity in Georgia.
You may also be able to establish paternity through the DCSS without hiring a lawyer. But you should speak with an experienced family law attorney in Georgia if there are any complications in your case, such as when:
Also, if you've been named as the alleged father in a paternity case, it's a good idea to get a lawyer's advice on to expect—and how to protect your rights—if a judge establishes that you're the biological father and orders you to pay child support.