"Paternity" refers to the determination of a child's "legal" father and the related rights and obligations of the father to the child. When "paternity has been established" it means that someone has been named the legal father of a child.
Paternity is automatically established if the parents are married to each other when the child is born. The husband is the legal father and his name will be on the child's birth certificate. If the parents of a child are not married to each other when the child is born, then paternity must be established before the father's name will be placed on the child's birth certificate and before the father has any rights to the child.
In Massachusetts, paternity can be established either voluntarily or involuntarily.
When the mother and father agree that the father is in fact the biological father, paternity can be established voluntarily. To voluntarily establish paternity, both the father and mother must sign what's called a "Voluntary Acknowledgment of Parentage" before a notary public, which is then filed with the Registry of Vital Records. This is often done at the hospital when the child is born, but can also be signed and filed at the city or town clerk's office or at the Registry of Vital Records office. Once the Voluntary Acknowledgment of Parentage is filed, the father is the legal father and his name will be added to the child's birth certificate.
Involuntary establishment of paternity is done through a court proceeding where a judge issues an "order of paternity." This method is involuntary because in a court proceeding, someone disputes paternity.
A number of people can seek to establish paternity: the mother, the alleged father, the child, the child's guardian (or another person acting like a parent to the child), or even a representative of a Massachusetts' public assistance program - if the child is receiving public assistance.
The person seeking to establish paternity is called the "petitioner." The petitioner must file a "Complaint to Establish Paternity" with the family court in order to begin the court process. The court may order genetic or DNA testing of the child and father. If the court determines that the father is in fact the biological father, then the court will issue an order of paternity, declaring that the alleged father is the legal father and ordering that his name will be added to the child's birth certificate.
Establishing paternity means more than just having a father named on the child's birth certificate. There are certain rights for both the father and the child that come with a determination of paternity. When paternity is established, if the mother and father can't agree between themselves, the father can ask a court for custody of or visitation with the child. Similarly, once paternity is established, the child is entitled to support from the father, so a court order for child support can be obtained.
A child might also be able to benefit from the father's medical and life insurance benefits, as well as Social Security and Veteran's Benefits. Both the father and the child will be entitled to inheritance rights should one of them pass away before the other.
The Massachusetts Department of Revenue Child Support Enforcement Unit provides useful information about establishing paternity, including laws, policies and forms.
For the statute governing establishment of paternity in Massachusetts, see Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 209C § § 1-24.