This article provides on overview of paternity laws in Rhode Island. If you have questions after reading this article, you should contact an experienced family law attorney for help.
"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 Rhode Island, 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 Rhode Island, 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 Paternity" form. This is usually done at the hospital when the child is born. The form and further information can also be obtained at the Department of Health's Division of Vital Records and at the Office of Child Support Services. The forms have to be completed with a representative from the hospital or one of these offices. Once signed, the Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity will be filed with, or sent to, the Division of Vital Records. Once properly filed, the father is the legal father of the child and his name will be added to the child's birth certificate.
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.
A number of people can seek to establish paternity: the mother, the father, the child, or even the state if the child is receiving public assistance. The person seeking to establish paternity is called the "petitioner." The petitioner must file a "Complaint for Paternity" in Family Court. The Office of Child Support Services can assist in the filing process.
If either the mother or the father denies paternity, the court may order genetic or DNA testing of the mother, child, and father. Today, DNA tests require only a quick swab inside the cheek of each person. If the father requested DNA testing and is found to be the biological father, the father will have to pay for the test, which is about $200. 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. Once 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 website for the Rhode Island Office of Child Support Services has resources and information about establishing paternity, including answers to frequently asked questions and guides for mothers and fathers.
For the full text of the statutes governing the establishment of paternity in Rhode Island, see R.I. Gen. Laws § § 15-8-1 to 15-8-28.