When is a dad or a mom not a parent? It may sound like a riddle, but it's actually an important legal question.
Under Kentucky law, married couples are automatically and legally established as the parents of any babies they have. But unmarried couples don't enjoy the benefit of that law. Instead, they have to take extra steps to ensure that they and their children are protected. This process begins with "establishing paternity." Establishing paternity means that the baby's biological father becomes the father for legal purposes, too.
Unless a dad establishes paternity, he's not considered the legal parent of his child.
This article provides only an overview of the paternity process. If you have specific questions, you should contact an experienced family law attorney for help.
There are two basic paths that unmarried couples with a baby can take to establish paternity: the parents can sign a voluntary acknowledgement of paternity (VAP), or the question of paternity can be adjudicated (decided) by a judge of district court after someone files a paternity lawsuit.
The first way, which also happens to be simplest, is that the parents can choose to sign a VAP form. The VAP process is managed by the Kentucky Paternity Acknowledgement Program (KYPAP). When you go to the hospital or birthing facility to deliver your baby, the medical staff will give you the VAP. Staffers can also provide you with informational materials and help if you have questions. They can't answer legal questions, but can make sure you're directed to someone else who can offer help.
Both parents should read the VAP and, if they understand it and agree with it, both should sign and date it in the presence of a notary public (a professional witness registered with the State of Kentucky). The hospital or birthing center will have a notary public on staff and available to help you. The father's name will then be added to the birth certificate, and the hospital or birthing center will send the birth certificate to the local Health Department. The Health Department will in turn send the certificate to the Kentucky Office of Vital Statistics.
The VAP form is usually signed in the hospital, after the baby's birth, but it can be signed outside the hospital, too. The forms you'll need are available at your local registrar's office. The registrar can also answer questions, notarize the paperwork, and forward the forms to Vital Statistics.
Parents always have the initial right to demand genetic testing to make sure there's a DNA link between the father and the child. If parents aren't sure about the biological paternity of a child, they should go to the local child support office in the county where the mother lives and ask for assistance in obtaining genetic testing to establish a DNA link between the parents and child. They shouldn't sign a VAP if they have any doubts.
By signing the VAP, the parents are agreeing that the father is the biological father. The father agrees that he may become responsible for paying child support and medical insurance expenses (possibly including "costs of confinement," which mean the prenatal medical and birth expenses incurred by the mother). The father also acknowledges that he doesn't have custody or visitation rights simply because he signed the VAP. However, by signing the VAP, he has earned the opportunity to go to court and ask a judge to give him custody and visitation rights.
The second way to establish paternity is through the judicial process. A paternity action can be brought to court by the child, the mother, a government lawyer for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (which typically becomes involved at the request of the mother for financial assistance) or the alleged father.
The matter is heard in district court in the county where any of the parties live. A judge will decide the case because there's no right to a jury trial. If anyone requests genetic testing, the court will order it and everyone must submit to testing. Health and Family Services also has the power to issue an administrative order requiring everyone to submit to genetic testing. If that happens, the testing will be free.
The judge will decide whether the alleged father is the baby's legal and biological father. If the answer is "yes," the court will issue a final paternity judgment, which means that paternity has been formally established and the father's name will be added to the birth certificate.
The court will also make decisions about financial obligations (child and medical support) and make a decision about custody, visitation, and residency (where the child will live).
There are a number of reasons why parents should establish paternity of their child:
KYPAP has assembled a hospital training guide which explains in depth how the VAP process works at hospitals and birthing centers and contains sample forms you can review before the birth of your child. The guide also contains a PowerPoint presentation and a comprehensive list of local contact points. The hospital training guide is a valuable resource. KYPAP also has a brief video which explains paternity and its importance.
The Oldham County Health Department has prepared an FAQ which offers a basic overview of KYPAP and the VAP process. It also offers information tailored to fathers about why paternity is so important.
Finally, the Kentucky Child Support Program offers a brochure about how to establish paternity and how child support services intersect with paternity in the lives of unmarried parents. (Warning: clicking on the link will open a document in Microsoft Word format)