Married couples are automatically established as the legal parents of any babies they have. This means that they have parental rights and responsibilities—and their child is fully protected—from the moment of birth.
Unmarried couples in Maine don't have those advantages under the law. Instead, when they have a baby, they have to take extra steps to ensure that they and their children are protected. Maine law does not deem the unmarried biological father of a baby to be a legal parent. This means that the baby can lose important rights, like the right to inherit property or benefits. It also means that if the mother dies an untimely death, there could be a major legal dispute about where the child should live.
To protect their baby and themselves, unmarried fathers may need to pursue their legal options. This process begins with "establishing paternity." Establishing paternity means that the baby's biological father becomes the father for legal purposes, too. It's important to establish paternity even if you live with the other parent and have a good relationship.
There are two methods that unmarried Maine couples who have a child together can take to establish paternity: the parents can sign an acknowledgement of paternity (AOP), or the question of the baby's paternity can be adjudicated (decided) by a judge after someone files a paternity lawsuit.
The first way, which also happens to be simplest, is that the parents can choose to sign the AOP. Signing the AOP is a totally voluntary process. (By contrast, going to court for a lawsuit is an involuntary process because everyone has to follow the judge's final order.) If you have any doubts about paternity, don't sign the AOP. Instead, pursue your right to genetic testing first, so you can find out if there's a DNA link between you and the child.
An AOP is a sworn statement, which means that not only do both parents have to sign it, but they have to do so in the presence of a notary public. (The parents don't need to sign at the same time, though.) A notary public is a government official who is licensed with the State of Maine and has the ability to serve as an official witness when people have to sign important legal documents. If you'd like to see a sample of an affidavit of acknowledgement, you can click here. (Warning: clicking on this hyperlink will open a Microsoft Word document.) Don't try to complete or use this sample form for any official purpose—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—including a notary public— available to assist you, and you can leave with the baby knowing that paternity is already established. There's no charge for completing the AOP at a Maine hospital or birthing center when your baby is born. You don't have to sign an AOP at the hospital, though. You can wait until after the child is born and sign at your local municipal clerk's office or in front of any notary public for a small notarization fee. You can also sign at the Maine Office of Vital Records for a $60 fee.
By signing the AOP, 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, medical support, and "costs of confinement" (meaning, the costs associated with the child's birth). This financial support might even include support for past expenses. The AOP doesn't give the father custody or visitation rights, although he does get some visitation rights. Those 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.
Once you've decided on your child's last name, it will be placed on a birth certificate and can't be changed without a court order.
The second way to establish paternity is by heading to court. A paternity action can be brought by the child, the mother, or the father. A lawsuit can also be filed by the Maine Office for Family Independence, Division of Support Enforcement & Recovery (DSER). DSER gets involved when the child receives public assistance of any kind, because it's the DSER mission to make sure that biological parents are providing financial support for their children. Cases that fall into DSER's hands often don't go to court. DSER has many administrative mechanisms to make sure that paternity is established and child support is paid.
Complex cases are assigned to an Assistant Attorney General from the Office of the Maine Attorney General, who will take the case to court. If you get any letters or notices from DSER or an Assistant Attorney General, don't ignore them—contact an attorney or legal assistance organization right away, and make sure to respond in a timely fashion.
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. The court can also enter an order assessing financial obligations (child and medical support, for example) 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:
Children also enjoy a wide variety of benefits when paternity is established:
Pine Tree Legal Assistance (PTLA) is a statewide non-profit legal aid association that helps low-income Maine residents with legal problems. PTLA has an extensive library of court forms and articles, including "Paternity: Am I the Father?" If you want to talk to someone or you think you qualify for representation by PTLA, this page will take you to links and contact information for PTLA's different offices around Maine.
The Office of the Maine Attorney General has a number of helpful, official topic pages about paternity, including "Child Support and Paternity," and "Frequently Asked Questions About Paternity."
DSER also hosts a paternity topic page.