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What Legal Rights do I Have to My Child?

Oct 29

I received this question from a child’s concerned relative recently; her e-mail reads: “Dear Shane, what legal rights does a father have when the parents are not married and are minors?  The expecting mother keeps threatening to keep the baby away from him and his family every time they get into a fuss.”

The initial answer to this question is very simple – None.  Basically, a child’s father, no matter what age, has no legal rights to his child if he and the mother have not married each other.  Most people are surprised to hear this, but under Alabama law, if an unwed couple has a child, the biological father of that child is not the legal father until the father and mother have properly signed an acknowledgment of paternity, or a judge makes an adjudication of paternity (paternity is a legal term that means “fatherhood”).  In response to this answer, I commonly hear questions like: “what if I signed the birth certificate?” or “what if the child has my last name?” or “what if everyone in the world knows this is my child?”  While all these things can be good evidence of paternity, a father still has to do one of these two things in order to establish his parental legal rights. 

To gain legal rights through what is called an “acknowledgement of paternity” the mother and father must voluntarily sign, and have notarized, a very specific written statement.  This document must be filed with the Alabama Office of Vital Statistics, and must contain certain information.  The form and contents of this acknowledgment must be just right, or it can be considered invalid, so it is best to have an attorney create and file this document.

If the mother refuses to sign an acknowledgement of paternity, the father needs to file a petition in the proper court asking the judge to establish paternity.  At the court hearing, the father will have an opportunity to present his evidence — he signed the birth certificate, the child has his last name, the mother has previously admitted the father’s paternity, etc.  Although it is not always necessary, the most certain way to verify paternity is through a DNA test, which can be ordered by the judge. 

After the judge establishes paternity, the father may go on to ask for primary or joint custody of the child, or ask that the court set out certain visitation for him.  The court can also set an amount for child support and even change the child’s last name if he or she does not already have the father’s last name.

As always, this column is intended for general information purposes only.  It is not intended, nor should it be construed as personal legal advice.  The answers to most legal problems rely on the specific facts of your situation; therefore, it is very important that you personally see a lawyer when these situations arise.  Issues regarding paternity, custody, and visitation are especially very technical and you should always personally consult an attorney before taking action on your own.