This question comes up most often in the case where a casual encounter leads to a pregnancy, and the mother of this child is not anxious to let the father see or spend time with the child. If your situation is anything like this, there are some steps you can take, and there are also some consequences you need to understand.
The putative father registry
This is something you’ve probably never heard of. The registry is a list, kept by the Department of Children’s Services (DCS), of people who either are definitely the parents of a child, or claim to be parents of a child.
If you plan on claiming this child as your own, you should call DCS at 615-741-9699 and explain your situation. They will have a form you need to fill out and return to their office.
Registering on this list doesn’t permanently establish you as the father of this child, but in the event the mother decides to give the child up for adoption, your name being on this list will help prevent your rights from being terminated without a fight.
Voluntarily acknowledgment of parentage
If you are at the hospital (or other birthing center) when the child is born, you should have the opportunity to sign a voluntary acknowledgment of parentage, along with the birth certificate.
This form requires the signature of both the mother and the father, so there must be at least a little cooperation between the parties. Signing this form will create a presumption that you are the father, but it is not conclusive. In order to truly establish your rights, you need to progress to the next step.
Complaint to establish parentage
Unless you and the mother are in full agreement that you are the father, and you agree on custody, visitation, child support, the child’s last name, and all other matters, you should file a complaint to establish parentage. Even if you do agree on everything, filing this complaint is a good idea. This can be filed before the child is born, but the judge will wait until after the birth before hearing your case.
If there is any debate about who the father is, the judge will likely require DNA testing to confirm the parentage of the child. This has become common because the testing is relatively quick, inexpensive, and very accurate.
The hearing can become complicated, as the judge must rule on all of the issues listed above, and visitation is often hotly contested. Once the judge makes a decision, there will be a court order conclusively finding that you are the parent of the child, along with a set visitation schedule and an order for child support.
What you need to know
The visitation schedule and child support are an order of the court, and can be enforced with the court’s contempt power. If either party is found to be in violation, one of both of you may find yourselves in jail for a period of time. That means the parents need to follow the orders religiously. Visitation is when the order says, and child support must be paid according to the order.
If you are paying child support, keep it up do date. If you are injured or otherwise unable to earn an income you must petition the court to suspend your payments temporarily, otherwise a debt will start to add up. The judges are very aggressive about enforcing child support orders, and they don’t listen to excuses for long. Each payment you miss could mean 10 days in jail. Don’t miss payments.
Likewise, you have the right to parent your child. Unless there are extraordinary circumstances, you will have visitation, phone calls, notice about school activities, and other opportunities to participate in your child’s life and be a model for his development into adulthood.
It’s almost always in the best interests of the child for the parents to communicate and work out an agreement for the parenting of the child. Even if you don’t have or don’t want a romantic relationship with the mother, you should be civil for the sake of the child.
If you find yourself in this situation, contact me for more information about how to protect your relationship with your child.