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The Perils of Paternity: What Unwed Fathers Need to Know

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Father's Day is upon us, an internationally recognized day to honor and celebrate all fathers. Unfortunately, many dads reading this won't be able to see their kids on Father's Day because of their lack of rights.

There is no doubt when a child is born who the mother is, but unmarried fathers are often denied the parental designation until the proper procedures are taken.

The discrimination against fathers in family courts is well documented (see my previous column "Divorce Civil Rights"), but the infringement on the rights, or lack thereof, of unmarried fathers is particularly unsettling.

When a child is born during a marriage, the child is presumed to be the child of the husband. But when a child is born out of wedlock, there is no presumption as to who the father is and thus, no paternal rights.

This bias against unmarried fathers is a growing concern as the changing dynamic of families means more couples eschew marriage in favor of cohabitation, which partially explains why more than 40 percent of children are currently born out of wedlock, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

In my experience, handling paternity cases at Cordell & Cordell, unmarried fathers are woefully ignorant about their perilous situation. If paternity has not been established, a father has no legal standing if the mother decides she no longer wants the kids to see him. There is nothing legally preventing the mother from withholding the children from their father.

An unwed father is left at the mercy of the mother of the child until paternity is established. If you are an unmarried dad who is certain you are the biological father, then you must be proactive and establish paternity to assert your legal rights.

My website DadsDivorce.com outlines three ways dads can establish paternity:

1. Get on the birth certificate. Once your child is born, the easiest way to establish paternity is by getting your name on the birth certificate. Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity (VAP) forms are also available for fathers to sign at the hospital at the time of the child's birth.

If the mother refuses to provide your name at the time the baby is born or you don't sign the VAP, you should contact your state's Department of Records to obtain information on how to complete the form on your own.

2. Get an order through an administrative agency. Administrative agencies (such as Child Support Enforcement) can be helpful during the initial stages of your paternity action by assisting you with filling out forms and helping you obtain a DNA test to establish that you are the father of the child.

3. Get a court order. To do so, you must file a Petition for Paternity and Child Custody with your local Circuit Court or Family Court. The court will then order a paternity test or look to see if the father is listed on the birth certificate to determine whether paternity has been established.

A court order will generally include a parenting plan outlining custody, visitation and other important aspects involved in the general upbringing of your child.

Dads already face uphill battles in family courts, but unmarried fathers need to realize the challenge is exponentially more difficult if they do not formalize their biological relationship with their children.

Joseph Cordell is the Principal Partner of Cordell & Cordell, a nationwide domestic litigation firm focused on men's family law matters. Cordell & Cordell also provides a website dedicated to informing men on the divorce process and the challenges they face. Visit dadsdivorce.com for more information.