This part of the guide explains
• how the law decides who the legal father is, and
• where to get legal help if you need it.
What is a legal father?
A legal father is the man recognized by the state as the child’s father. Sometimes legal recognition of the father is called paternity.
Does it matter who the legal father is?
Yes! A legal father has certain duties, including providing support for the child. Your child is also more likely to have a relationship with the dad and his family if he is recognized as the legal father.
What if the dad does not want to or cannot help support the child now?
You can ask the court to order the dad to pay child support. Even if the father cannot pay child support now, he may be able to in the future. But the court cannot make child-support orders unless it knows who the legal father is. For more information, see Supporting Your Child.
What if we are married?
If you are married to the baby’s father and you live together, he is automatically the baby’s legal father. Neither of you needs to do anything else.
If you are married but another man could also be a presumed father (explained below), either man has two years after the baby is born to request a DNA test to prove that he is or is not the baby’s biological father. If neither man requests a test within two years, your husband is the child’s legal father for life.
What if we are not married?
If you are not married, the father is not legally recognized unless you ask a court to declare him the father or he takes steps to claim and care for the child. The two options are:
- you and the dad can sign a Voluntary Declaration of Paternity/Paternity Opportunity Program Declaration (POP), or
- you can ask the court to “establish paternity.”
Can the father just say he is the legal father?
Yes, but to be legal, he must say it in writing, using a special form called a Paternity Opportunity Program Declaration (POP) or Voluntary Declaration of Paternity. The mother must sign the form, too.
Signing the form means you both agree that you are the legal parents of the child. If the father signs at the prenatal clinic or the hospital, his name will be listed as the legal father on the birth certificate. If that happens, you do not have to go to court to “establish paternity.” (See below.)
Can we sign a Voluntary Declaration of Paternity after leaving the hospital?
Yes. You can get a Voluntary Declaration of Paternity form from your local
- child-support agency,
- registrar of births,
- courthouse, or
- Social Services department.
To be valid, the form must be signed in front of a state-approved witness or notary. Many of the locations listed above have state-approved witnesses. If you do not want to sign it at one of these agencies, you must sign it in front of a notary. Then mail it to your local Department of Child Support Services.
Important! Keep a copy of the signed Declaration.
What is a notary?
A notary is someone who witnesses official documents.
Where can I find a notary?
Most photocopy shops have a notary. Some banks have them, too. Before you sign, the notary will ask you for identification. The notary will also ask you to state that the information on the form is true.
Most notaries charge about $20. If you sign the Voluntary Declaration of Paternity at the hospital or one of the agencies listed above, you do not have to pay anything.
What if the man who signs the Voluntary Declaration of Paternity is not really the father?
If he is not the biological father, and the court has not made any custody, visitation, or child-support orders yet, he or the mother has 60 days to cancel his Declaration.
If he is not 18 when he signs the form, he can cancel (rescind) it anytime before he and the mother are both 18 years old plus 60 days.
Important: A man and woman should only sign this form if they are sure he is the biological father, or is willing to be a parent to the child for life.
What if more than 60 days have passed since the man signed the Voluntary Declaration of Paternity?
If the man says he is not the real father, but he missed the 60-day deadline to cancel (rescind) it, he has two years after the baby is born to ask a court to release him from being the legal parent.
The court will probably release the man from his parental obligations if the court
- receives DNA tests showing he is not the real father, and
- believes that removing the man as the child’s legal father is best for the child.
Important! After the baby is 2 years old, the man cannot legally challenge his paternity.
What if the dad does not want to sign a Voluntary Declaration of Paternity?
If the father does not want to sign the form, you will have to go to court to “establish paternity.” Your local child support agency (LCSA, for short) will help you for free.
Your LCSA can also help you get a child-support order so that the father will have to support the baby. See Supporting Your Child.
Where can I find my LCSA?
How will LCSA help establish paternity?
If the man says he is not the father, LCSA will file a court case against the man whom the mother says is the father (the alleged father). If the alleged father says he is not the father, LCSA can schedule DNA tests.
The DNA tests may show that
- he is not the father, which means he has no rights or duties regarding the child, or
- he is probably the father, which means a court can order him to pay child support—but he can still try to prove to the court that he is not the father.
Can the man refuse to take the DNA tests?
Yes, but a court can still say he is the presumed father and order him to pay child support.
Can I establish paternity without help from the LCSA?
Yes. You can file on your own or with a lawyer’s help. To learn more, see www.courts.ca.gov/selfhelp.htm. You can also ask the court clerk’s office if they have Family Law Facilitators to help you.
If you are a man and want to prove that you are the baby’s father, you may have to first prove that you are the presumed father. Then, if you can get DNA results that show you are the father, you will have the same rights and duties as the mother.
For free help and answers to your questions, contact POP (Paternity Opportunity Program):
- call 1-866-249-0773, or
- visit www.childsup.ca.gov.
As noted above, if both parents agree who the father is, you don’t need to go to court.
When should I ask the court to establish paternity?
It is a good idea to do this right away. When parents are young and unmarried, it’s easy for them to lose touch with each other. One may move away for a job or school. That may make establishing paternity harder.
What is a presumed father?
A presumed father is someone that the courts treat as the legal father. A man is a presumed father if he and the mother were not married (or were married, but not living together) and one of the following is true:
- he and the mother signed a POP/Voluntary Declaration of Paternity form,
- he married the mother soon before the baby was born,
- he and the mother believed they were legally married before the baby was born,
- he married the mother (or tried to) after the baby was born, and his name is on the baby’s birth certificate,
- he married the mother (or tried to) after the baby was born, and has been ordered to pay child support, or
- he has lived with the child, and has said he is the father.
What rights does a presumed father have?
A presumed father can
- ask for a blood test to prove he is the father if, for example, the mother is married to someone else, and
- keep his child from being adopted. (See Adoption)
Exception: A presumed father does not have these rights if the child resulted from rape (or in some cases statutory rape), and he was convicted of that crime.
Is it always a good idea to establish paternity?
No. Sometimes establishing paternity may not be best for the child. Examples include the following:
- the man is not willing to parent the child,
- the man has abused you, the child, or his other children,
- the man is involved in illegal or dangerous activities, or
- the baby is the result of rape.
If paternity is not established, you alone will be responsible for taking care of and supporting the child. And you alone can decide when and whether the dad can see the child. But the father can file in court to establish paternity and ask for custody and visitation.