“Paternity” means fatherhood. In the legal sense, “establishing paternity” refers to the determination of a child’s “legal” father and the related rights and obligations of the father to the child. Every child has a biological father, but not every child has a “legal” father. 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.
In Pennsylvania, 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 Pennsylvania, paternity can be established either “voluntarily” or “involuntarily” up until the child turns 18 years old.
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 Paternity” form (Form PA-CS 611) ("VAP") in front of a witness, which can be any person over age 18 other than the mother or the father.
The VAP is often signed at the hospital or birthing center when the child is born. The form can also be obtained at local Department of Public Welfare (County Assistance) Offices and at the Domestic Relations office of the county courts. Once signed, the VAP must be filed with, or sent to, the Department of Public Welfare. Once properly filed, the father is the legal father of the child and his name will be added to the child’s birth certificate.
If a man claiming to be the father of the child files a Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity, but the mother fails to or refuses to sign, the Department of Public Welfare registers it as a claim of paternity for the child. This does not give the father any rights to the child. However, the father will receive notice, or be told, of any proceedings for adoption of the child. If a father wants other rights to the child, like custody or visitation, he must go to court to establish paternity “involuntarily.”
Involuntary establishment of paternity is done through a court proceeding where the court issues an “order of paternity.” This method is called “involuntary” because someone disputes paternity, which is why it becomes a court issue. If the mother or father is seeking to establish paternity, they must file a “Petition to Determine Paternity” at the Family Court in order to begin the court process. A mother can also begin the process by filing a “Complaint for Child Support” at the Family Court.
If either the mother or the father denies paternity, 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, the court will issue an order of paternity, making the father the legal father, and 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.
If you have questions about establishing paternity in Pennsylvania, you should contact an experienced family law attorney.
The website for the PA Child Support Program of the Department of Public Welfare has forms for and information about paternity, including answers to frequently asked questions about paternity.
For the full text of the statute governing involuntary establishment of paternity, see 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 4343.
For the full text of the statute governing voluntary establishment of paternity, see 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 5103.