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What is the Importance of Establishing Paternity in a Custody Case?

Today, the meaning of “family” has expanded from its traditional definition. Families can be created by genetic relationships, but that is not the only route. With adoption, assisted reproduction, and building chosen families of loving friends and partners, there are many ways to create a happy, nurturing family for children. 

That being said, when it comes to legal matters, the matter is a bit more complex—particularly when it comes to paternity. Establishing paternity is critical to ensuring fathers and children alike have clear legal rights in their relationship with one another. 

The importance of paternity

Legally speaking, paternity is the legal establishment of parentage between a father and children. 

Parents—and most importantly, their children—benefit when paternity is clear. When it comes to child support payments, for example, established paternity offers mothers and other custodial caregivers financial support. It also allows fit and caring fathers the chance to be present in their child’s life. 

Establishing paternity in a custody case also protects children’s rights to build an ongoing emotional bond with both parents. And when children are aware of their full family lineage and heritage, they may also benefit from a stronger sense of identity—not to mention knowledge of family medical history that may affect their health. 

In addition, children gain the right to be listed on their father’s health insurance. Down the road, they may more easily access benefits that may be awarded to their father, such as Social Security, any Veteran benefits, and their estate.

Establishing paternity secures the legal rights of parents

While paternity is important on a number of practical levels, it’s especially crucial in a custody case. To petition the court for child custody or parenting time, a biological father must be considered a “legal father.” 

Paternity is also necessary for the other parent to request child support. If a paternity order is made several years into a child’s life, the custodial parent may be entitled to back child support, or arrears, as of the date of the application to establish paternity.   

Legal paternity is also necessary for fathers to gain the right to be involved in medical, religious, educational, and other major decisions that impact their child’s life.

How paternity is established voluntarily

In New Jersey, a woman is legally considered the mother of a child if she gave birth to or adopted them. For men, the situation may be more complex. If a couple is married within 300 days of a child’s birth, the husband is presumed to be the father of the child. 

However, there are situations in which paternity may need to be legally established. These include:

Under the New Jersey Parentage Act, parents have several options to establish paternity in New Jersey. 

Certificate of Parentage (COP)

A Certificate of Parentage (COP) is a signed statement in which two unmarried parents voluntarily confirm the biological father of the child. Like a court-ordered judgment of paternity, this legal document can be used as the basis for custody orders, child support orders, and court-ordered parenting time.

COPs include basic personal information, but they are not a matter of public record. Once filed, they are only accessible by the parents, the child, and state employees who must access information on the form to complete their official duties. 

A birth certificate coordinator may assist parents with completing a COP at the hospital when a child is born. In fact, a COP must be completed for an unmarried father’s name to be listed on a child’s birth certificate. Note, however, that a COP may be completed and filed with the state Registrar at any time following the birth of the child. 

What if a mother is married, but the husband is not the father? 

As noted above, if a couple is married within 300 days of a child’s birth, the husband is typically presumed to be the father. If the husband is not the biological father, the mother and husband may sign an Affidavit of Denial of Paternity

An Affidavit of Denial of Paternity alleviates the husband of any legal obligation to financially support the child. However, it also terminates the husband’s rights to parenting time and child custody. Like a COP, an Affidavit of Denial of Paternity is not a matter of public record.

Once the Affidavit of Denial of Paternity is signed, the biological father and mother may then sign a COP to establish paternity. 

Determining paternity through the court system

An alleged parent may file a petition with the New Jersey Superior Court to establish paternity at any point up until a child is 23 years old. If both parents agree about the child’s paternity, genetic (DNA) testing may not be necessary.

However, if one person denies the alleged paternity, the court may order the alleged father and child to undergo DNA testing to confirm paternity. When deciding whether to order genetic testing, the court will consider factors that include: 

Who pays for court-ordered genetic testing?

The court will cover the cost of DNA testing initially. However, if the alleged father’s paternity is confirmed, he may be responsible for reimbursing the court for the cost of the test. 

Questions about establishing paternity or custody? Contact Dughi, Hewit & Domalewski

At the law office of Dughi, Hewit & Domalewski, we recognize that the emotional and legal impacts of establishing paternity in a custody case—or any other scenario—can be long-lasting. We pride ourselves on handling family law matters with tact and compassion.

For step-by-step guidance on navigating your paternity or child custody situation, schedule your consultation with our team today.

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