"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 South Carolina, 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 South Carolina, 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 Paternity Acknowledgment." This is often done at the hospital or birthing center when the child is born. Completing the Voluntary Paternity Acknowledgment at the hospital is free. The form can also be completed later at the State Office of Vital Records or the County Health Department, but there is a small fee.
The mother and father must both sign the same form in front of a notary at one of these offices. Once signed, the Voluntary Paternity Acknowledgment is filed with, or sent to, the Office 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.
When either the mother or the father disputes paternity, paternity must be established "involuntarily." In South Carolina, there are two involuntary methods of establishing paternity: by contacting the Department of Social Services (DSS) or by filing a petition to establish paternity in court.
If one parent does not want to sign the Voluntary Paternity Acknowledgment, the other parent can seek to establish paternity by requesting a DNA test through DSS. Today, a DNA test requires that the child, mother, and father have the inside of their cheeks swabbed. The DNA is then sent to a laboratory for analysis. If necessary, DSS can get a court order requiring the other parent to cooperate. If the test determines that the man is the biological father, he is established as the legal father. However, for the father's name to be included on the birth certificate, the mother and father still have to go to the Office of Vital Records.
The other way of involuntarily establishing paternity is to file a "Petition to Establish Paternity" at the Family Court in order to begin the court process. A custodial mother can also begin the court process by filing for child support at the Family Court. If either the mother or the father denies paternity, the court may order DNA testing. 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 benefits for the child, the mother, and the father when paternity is established.
Establishing paternity helps children:
Establishing paternity helps mothers to:
Establishing paternity helps fathers to:
If you have questions about paternity in South Carolina, you should contact an experienced family law attorney for help.
The Department of Social Services' Integrated Child Support Services website provides information about establishing paternity, including answers to frequently asked questions.
For the full text of the statute governing establishment of paternity, see S.C. Code Ann. § § 20-7-952 to 20-7-957.