It's fairly common nowadays to hear of children being born out of wedlock. Many committed, unmarried couples decide to have children outside of marriage because they have no desire to marry or because they plan to get married after the birth of their child. In some cases, couples have broken up despite a pregnancy, or the father has made it clear that he wants nothing to do with the mother (and maybe even the child).
In cases where a child is born to unmarried parents, it's important to establish "paternity," which refers to the legal relationship between a father and his child. This article explains the ways paternity can be established in Washington. If you have questions after reading this article, you should contact a local family law attorney for advice.
“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 or in a domestic partnership with each other when the child is born. The husband or domestic partner is the legal father and his name will be on the child’s birth certificate.
In Washington, if the parents of a child are not married to each other or not in a registered domestic partnership when the child is born, the child has no legal father until paternity is established. Once paternity is established, the father’s name will be placed on the child’s birth certificate. the father will gain certain rights to the child, and will be under a legal obligation to provide financial support to his child.
In Washington, paternity can be established either “voluntarily” by signing a "Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity" form or “involuntarily” through a court order.
When the mother and father are both sure that the father is in fact the biological father of the child, paternity can be established voluntarily. This requires both the father and mother to sign what’s called a “Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity.” This is often done at the hospital when the child is born. The form can also be obtained later from local county health departments or any Division of Child Support Office.
The mother and father must both sign the same form in front of a notary. When properly signed and notarized, the form must be filed with, or sent to, the Washington State Department of Health, Center for Health Statistics. If the Acknowledgment is signed and filed within five days of the child’s birth, there is no filing fee. Once the Acknowledgment of Paternity is properly filed with the Center for Health Statistics, the father is the legal father of the child and his name will be included on the child’s birth certificate.
Involuntary establishment of paternity is done through a court proceeding where the court issues an “order establishing parentage.” This method is called “involuntary” because someone disputes paternity, which is why it becomes a court issue.
The mother, the father, the child, or the state (if the child is receiving public assistance), can begin the court process by filing a “Petition to Establish Parentage” in the Superior Court located in the county where the child lives. Sometimes even if the child is not receiving public assistance, the state can help establish parentage if the mother or father applies for services from the Division of Child Support (DCS). If DCS accepts your case, a county prosecuting attorney will act on behalf of the child to establish parentage and obtain a child support order.
If after receiving appropriate notice of the court proceeding, the father doesn’t appear in court, the judge can enter a “default order” in his absence, declaring him the legal father. If the father appears in court and the mother and father both agree that the father is the biological father, the judge will immediately issue an order establishing parentage.
If either the mother or the father denies or is uncertain of paternity, they can request the court to order genetic or DNA testing. Today, a DNA test requires that the child, mother, and father have the inside of their cheeks swabbed. The DNA samples are then sent to a laboratory for analysis, which can establish with 99.9% certainty whether the father is the biological father.
If the DNA testing confirms that the father is in fact the biological father, the court will issue an order establishing parentage. This order establishes the father as the legal father and his name will be added to the child’s birth certificate. When appropriate, the court can also enter orders regarding custody, visitation, and child support in proceedings to establish parentage.
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:
For the full text of the statutes regarding establishment of paternity, see Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § § 26.26.011 to 26.26.914.
The website of the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services provides information and resources for parents seeking to establish paternity.
Court forms, including the Petition to Establish Parentage, are available on the Washington Courts’ website.