Louisiana law provides that when a married couple has a baby, they automatically become the parents in the eyes of the law. This means they have special rights and responsibilities that only parents are entitled to have.
Things aren't as simple for unmarried couples who have a baby together, because unless an unmarried dad "establishes paternity," he's not considered the legal parent of his child. Establishing paternity refers to the legal process for making sure that the baby's biological father becomes the legal father, too. Unmarried Louisiana couples have to take extra legal measures, above and beyond what married couples do, to make sure that their child's paternity is established.
This article provides only a basic overview of paternity in Louisiana. If you have questions about paternity, you should contact a local family law attorney for help.
There are two methods that unmarried Louisiana couples with a baby can take to establish paternity: the parents can sign an affidavit of acknowledgement, or the question of the baby's 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 the affidavit. Signing the affidavit is a totally voluntary process, which means that either or both parties can decide not to do it. (By contrast, going to court is an involuntary process because everyone is bound by the judge's decision and there's no element of choice.) If you have any doubts about paternity, don't sign the affidavit. Instead, pursue your right to genetic testing first, so you can find out if there's a DNA link between you and the child. You can voluntarily choose to obtain genetic testing at your own expense. Alternatively, you can ask a court to order it, or you can ask the Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services, Child Support Enforcement (CSE) office, to help you. CSE has contracts with two different genetic testing laboratories, and you can use them to obtain testing at a cost of $62 per person.
An affidavit of acknowledgement is a sworn statement, which means that not only do both parents have to sign the acknowledgement of paternity affidavit, but they have to do it in the presence of a notary public. A notary public is a government official who is licensed with the State of Louisiana and has the ability to serve as an official witness. If you'd like to see a sample of an affidavit of acknowledgement, you can click here. Don't try to complete the sample form—it can't be signed and notarized until after your child is born.
Most commonly, unmarried couples choose to sign the affidavit at the hospital or birthing center. The hospital has the necessary forms and staff available to assist you, and if the form is completed there, both parents' names can be on the birth certificate. It's important to know that you don't have to sign the affidavit at the hospital if you have reservations or you don't feel ready. You can sign later if that's what you want. But do know that if you leave the hospital without signing, only the mother's name will be on the birth certificate. You can still change the birth certificate later, but you'll need a judge to sign a court order.
By signing the affidavit, the parents are agreeing that the father is the biological and legal father of the baby. They also agree that the father may have to pay child support, and that the child has the right to inherit from the father. The affidavit doesn't give the father custody rights, although he does get some visitation rights. Custody rights stay with the mother. But by signing the affidavit, the father earns the right to go to court and ask for new 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, the father, or a government lawyer for CSE (which typically becomes involved at the request of the mother for financial assistance). CSE gets involved because it's their mission to make sure that biological parents are providing financial support for their children.
If anyone requests genetic testing, the court will order it and everyone must submit to testing. The parties can settle the case at any time or they can go to trial. If they go to trial, 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 can also enter an order assessing financial obligations (child and medical support) and make a decision about custody, visitation, and residency (where the child will live).
LouisianaLawHelp.org, which is an initiative sponsored by a number of non-profits and designed to provide free electronic legal help to Louisiana residents, manages a Paternity: Know Your Rights page which contains guides, FAQs, forms, and links to attorneys who can offer help.
The Louisiana Department of Health & Hospitals, State Registrar & Vital Statistics office, has a paternity information page which focuses on the requirements and processes involved in completing an acknowledgement of paternity affidavit.
CSE hosts a page which discusses how to establish paternity and the relationship between paternity and child support.