In the United States, the legal system has recognized the importance of confirming a child’s paternity, which refers to who a child’s father is. Modern technological advances have made it possible to determine, without question, whether or not a man is a child’s father. This is important in the legal system, as it affects a man’s parental rights, as well as his financial and other responsibilities toward the child.

A man may acknowledge paternity for legal purposes by allowing his name to be listed as the father on the child’s birth certificate, or in a legal document filed with the court. In the event paternity is disputed, either party may request a DNA paternity test, or the state child support or child services division may request a court order for paternity testing. To explore this concept, consider the following paternity definition. To explore this concept, consider the following paternity definition.

Definition of Paternity


  1. The state of being a father
  2. The issue of legally establishing fatherhood


1400-1450        late Middle English paternite < Late Latin paternitās

Establishing Paternity

There is an entire section of U.S. law dealing with the establishment and recognition of paternity. Legally, paternity deals with the relationship between a father and his child, as well as his rights and obligations as a parent. Paternity also affects a child’s right to support provided by his or her father, inheritance, and the right to use the father’s surname.

Even if a man has not married his child’s mother, does not live with her, or does not know about, or refuses acknowledgment of paternity, the law expects him to help provide for the child. The child’s mother may initiate a court action for establishing paternity, or, if she applies for government assistance to help support the child, the child support division will require paternity testing.

Marital Presumption of Paternity

Since the days of English common law, the assumption that a child born while a couple is married is the child of the husband has been the standard of establishing paternity. This Marital Presumption of Paternity meant that, even if a child was a result of the wife’s adulterous affair, the child was considered the legitimate child of the couple. This helped minimize the stigma of illegitimacy that plagued such children of the time, protecting their rights to be financially supported and physically cared for, as well as their right to inherit the estate of the father.

According to the Marital Presumption of Paternity, a husband could not challenge such a child’s paternity unless he could prove that he was impotent, or that he was not in the country at the time the child was conceived. Late in the 19th century, the courts began allowing men to challenge the Marital Presumption of Paternity using a defense of impossibility. This required the husband to provide clear and convincing evidence that it was impossible for him to have been involved in the child’s conception.

Putative Fathers

When a child’s paternity is questioned, the court may get involved in determining who, among possible fathers, referred to as “putative fathers,” is the actual father. Putative fathers are initially determined based on a sworn statement by the child’s mother. Additional evidence, such as sworn testimony, may be considered as well. In many cases in which there are multiple putative fathers, it is common for them to deny paternity until proven. In some cases, however, multiple putative fathers engage in a fight over custody.

A ruling by the court ultimately assigns paternity to a specific man, giving him rights and responsibilities of fatherhood. In a case in which multiple putative fathers exist, the court will may also issue an order as to which men are specifically proven not to be the child’s father.

DNA Paternity Testing

When a child is conceived, it inherits DNA from both its mother and father in a combination that is unique. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), which is found in the cells of the body, provides the genetic design for the child’s biological and physical characteristics. While, historically, the issue of paternity relied on the claims and testimony of a child’s mother and putative father, modern technology in DNA testing has made it possible to definitively determine who the child’s father is, and is not.

A child’s DNA will match that of its biological parents. A DNA paternity testing that matches the parents’ does not do so with 100% accuracy, but states a probability a minimum of 99%, and is often stated as a percentage as high as 99.999%. When the child’s DNA does not match that of a putative father, he is scientifically excluded as the biological father 100%.

Methods for testing DNA involve quick and painless provision of a sample, either through a swab of the interior of the cheek, or a few hairs with follicles attached. Either way is painless. In addition, DNA paternity test centers are easy to locate, and the cost is reasonable. In most labs, results of DNA paternity testing are available within 3-5 days. For these reasons, most paternity matters are actually settled before the case goes to trial.

Who Pays for DNA Paternity Testing

One or both parents may arrange privately to have to DNA testing done for paternity. In such a case, the parent requesting the test would pay the paternity test cost, or the parents may agree to share the fee. Because fees for DNA testing have become quite reasonable, usually between $70 and $200, depending on the laboratory used, this option may save a great deal of time and expense of going to trial. In the event a parent is receiving help from social services, such as welfare or food stamps, or is collecting child support through the state child support enforcement agency, the state will pay for DNA testing in most jurisdictions.

For example, Natalie files a request for public assistance in the form of Food Stamps and monthly welfare payments to help support her 2-year old son. Because there is no father in the home, the state requires that paternity be established, and that child support be ordered of the father. Natalie lists Marcus as the child’s father, but he denies it, stating Natalie was not faithful to him during the time they were dating. Natalie is then required to list all men who could possibly be responsible for the child’s conception, including the dates she dated, or was sexually active with, each man. In this case, the state requires DNA testing to establish definitively who the child’s father is, and pays the paternity test costs for all of the putative fathers.

Important Reasons to Establish Paternity

In addition to the common purpose of establishing who has the rights and responsibilities of parenting a child, there are a number of important reasons to establish paternity, enabling the child to know who his or her biological father is. These include:

  • The child’s identity
  • Health information
  • Financial support of the child
  • Benefits of for the child, including health insurance, social security, veterans’ benefits, and inheritance
  • Access to public assistance

Paternity Rights as a Sperm Donor

When actor Jason Patric was dating girlfriend Danielle Schreiber in 2008, he determined that he was not ready to be a father at the time, but donated sperm, giving Schreiber permission to use it to conceive if she desired. On the in-vitro fertilization documents, Schreiber named both herself and Patric as the “intended parents,” and underwent a successful procedure. Baby “Gus” was born in December 2009. Although the couple had been separated for a few years, Patric developed a relationship with his tiny biological son, allowing both mother and baby to stay with him in his New York apartment.

In 2012, when Gus was three years old, Schreiber put a final stop to her relationship with Patric, and cut off Patric’s visitation with the baby. Patric sued for paternity rights as a sperm donor. The trial court upheld the mother’s right to deny her sperm donor contact with her child, though the judge stated, “I don’t think anyone is going to prevail as a result of this.”

The matter was appealed to the California Appeals Court, which considered that the state’s purpose in imposing its original statute guaranteeing separation and privacy for both sperm donors and mothers was never intended to apply to intimate partners. The Court ruled that there is nothing in the law prohibiting paternity rights to a sperm donor who donates sperm with the intention of having a baby with his unmarried partner, to be raised in their joint home.

The Court went on to say that, although the law prohibits a sperm donor from establishing paternity solely on his biological connection to the resulting child, any sperm donor “who has established a familial relationship with the child, and has demonstrated a commitment to the child and the child’s welfare, can be found to be a presumed parent even though he could not [by law] establish paternity based upon his biological connection to the child.” This ruling effectively solidified paternity rights as a sperm donor for men whose intent was to father a child with an intimate partner.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Clear and Convincing Evidence – Evidence presented at trial that makes it more likely that not that the claim or defense is true.
  • Child Custody – The care, control, and maintenance of a child, often awarded by the court.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.