In Ohio, when a married couple has a baby, the law automatically treats the husband as the baby's father for purposes of assigning rights and responsibilities. It's as easy as that.
But when an unmarried couple has a child together—a commonplace occurrence in contemporary America—the law doesn't make the same assumptions, or "presumptions," about the identity of the father. Ohio law doesn't recognize the baby's biological father as the legal father unless and until the couple takes additional legal action, which is known as "establishing paternity." Establishing paternity refers to the legal process for making sure that a baby's biological father becomes the legal father, too.
If an unmarried couple doesn't take care of establishing paternity, there can be serious consequences for their baby. For instance, a baby without a legal father can't inherit Social Security or veterans' benefits from the father.
Other than marriage, there are two basic methods that unmarried Ohio parents take to establish paternity: the parents can sign an "Acknowledgement of Paternity Affidavit," or else the question of the baby's paternity can be adjudicated (decided) by a judge after someone files a paternity lawsuit. There's almost always an administrative component to a paternity lawsuit. This means that the case might not even go to a courtroom, because a team of professionals and lawyers from a government agency (the Child Support Enforcement Agency, or CSEA) intervenes first and has the power to issue certain orders of its own.
Signing the acknowledgment of paternity affidavit is a simple, voluntary process. Unmarried couples frequently choose to sign the affidavit at the hospital or birthing center. The hospital has the necessary forms and staff available to assist you with the paperwork.
Because an affidavit is a sworn statement and can only be signed in the presence of an official witness, the hospital can supply a witness or notary public (licensed state witness) when the parents are ready to sign. The hospital will also make sure the affidavit gets to Vital Statistics and the Central Paternity Registry for filing. If you don't sign the affidavit at the hospital, you can sign later, at your local Registrar's Office (also known as the Health Department or Vital Statistics) or your local CSEA.
By signing the affidavit, the parents are agreeing that the man signing is the biological and legal father of the baby and that his name should be added to the birth certificate. They also agree that the father may have to pay child support and provide health insurance for his child, and that the child has the right to inherit from the father.
When an unmarried Ohio woman gives birth, the law awards her sole custody of the child until a judge issues an order to the contrary. So the parents have to work these matters out for themselves, and if they can't, they have to go to court and ask a judge to make the decision for them. If both parents don't understand and agree to all these things, they shouldn't sign the affidavit.
If you'd like to see a copy of the acknowledgement of paternity affidavit, you can click here. But remember—this is only a sample and you can't sign or complete it until your baby has been born and you're in the presence of a notary public.
If you have any doubts about whether a child is yours, don't sign the affidavit because once it's signed, it's a legally binding document that's very hard to overturn. Instead, pursue your right to genetic testing so you can find out if there's a DNA link between you and the child.
In Ohio, a paternity lawsuit can be brought to court by either of the parents or by a government lawyer for the CSEA. The CSEA gets involved if the mother or child received financial assistance through the State of Ohio. CSEA is interested in paternity cases because its mission is to make sure that biological parents are providing financial support for their children, but courts can't order child support unless and until paternity is established.
The CSEA office that's located where the child's mother lives can frequently resolve paternity cases before they go to court. The CSEA can order everyone to submit to genetic testing, and CSEA will pay for the testing. When the results come in, the CSEA issues an "order of establishment of paternity" that resolves the question of who a child's father really is. This also gives the father standing (meaning, legal ability) to ask for custody and visitation.
If the parties continue to dispute the case and it can't be resolved by CSEA, a lawsuit will have to be filed in juvenile probate court. 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. The judge may order genetic testing if it hasn't already been performed. Ultimately, the judge will issue a final paternity order, which means that paternity has been formally established. 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).
There are a number of reasons why parents should always establish paternity of their child, regardless of whether they live together or have a loving relationship:
If you still have questions about paternity in Ohio, you should contact an experienced family law attorney in your area for help.
Ohio's Department of Job and Family Services has prepared a brochure, "What a difference a Dad makes!" that's viewable as a PDF. It explains the Ohio Paternity Enhancement Program and provides more information about the paternity affidavit. Other webpages describe the administrative paternity establishment process in detail, complete with contact information for the CSEA in your county and an application for services, and questions and answers about paternity establishment in general.
The Paternity Enhancement Program has its own website, including an extensive list of frequently asked questions.
Ohio Legal Services, which helps low-income Ohioans with legal problems, has a paternity section on its website that includes questions and answers, forms and education, courts and hearings information, and non-legal resources.