Married couples are automatically and legally established as (or “presumed to be”) the parents of any babies they have. But unmarried couples have to go the extra mile to make sure that they and their children are protected. For unmarried couples, the legal process begins with “establishing paternity,” because the baby’s father isn’t automatically considered a legal father (the mother is legally the mother if she’s given birth to the child). “Establishing paternity” means that the baby’s biological father becomes the father for legal purposes, too.

In Missouri, parents who are not married may establish legal paternity for a child in one of two ways:

  1. Both parents may sign an Affidavit Acknowledging Paternity at the hospital when the baby is born. The Affidavit allows the parents to voluntarily declare paternity for the child. When both parents properly complete and sign their respective Affidavit, the man becomes the legal father of the child and his name is placed on the child’s birth certificate. If the parents don’t complete the Affidavit at the hospital, it’s not too late. The parents can contact the Department of Health and Senior Services’ Bureau of Vital Records or the Family Support Division (FSD) to get an Affidavit and assistance in completing the Affidavit to establish legal paternity.
  1. Obtain an order naming the man as the father of the child. FSD can assist with obtaining an order that establishes paternity, or your attorney can file a petition in court to establish paternity and obtain an order relating to custody, visitation and child support. When the mother is married, but not to the father of the child, the Husband’s Denial of Paternity, a part of the Affidavit Acknowledging Paternity, can be completed by the mother and her husband. If the husband is not cooperative or his location is unknown, the married mother may apply for Child Support services to assist with obtaining an order that establishes paternity.

What if you are uncertain about the paternity of your child?

Free paternity testing may be obtained through FSD. Paternity testing (also known as DNA testing or genetic testing) involves a simple swipe of a Q-tip©–like swab inside the cheek of the child, mother and the man. The samples are then sent to a laboratory for testing. If the results of the genetic test show at least a 98 percent probability that the man is the father, then the man is the presumed father under Missouri law. Genetic testing alone does not establish legal paternity. Parents must complete an Affidavit Acknowledging Paternity or obtain an order naming the man as the father of the child, or either parent can file a petition in court to establish paternity and obtain an order relating to custody, visitation and child support.

How can you establish paternity?

There are two ways that unmarried couples with a baby can establish paternity: the parents can sign a voluntary acknowledgement of paternity (VAP), or the question of paternity can be adjudicated (decided) by a judge of district court after someone files a paternity lawsuit.

Using a VAP form

The first way, which also happens to be simplest, is that the parents can choose to sign a VAP form. When you go to the hospital or medical facility to deliver your baby, the medical staff will give you the VAP. Both parents read it and, if they understand it and agree with it, each parent must sign and date it in the presence of a witness. The father’s name will then be added to the birth certificate.

The VAP form is usually signed in the hospital, after the baby’s birth, but it can be signed outside the hospital, too. The form is also available in physicians’ offices where newborn children are seen and treated.

If the father doesn’t sign a VAP when the baby is born, his name isn’t added to the birth certificate. If he later decides he wants to establish paternity and have his name added to the birth certificate, he and the mother have to complete the Paternity Consent Form for Birth Registration later. This form can be signed at any time until the child turns 18, but a judge or a hearing officer (sometimes known as a “referee”) also has to sign. The form is available through the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Office of Vital Statistics. You can contact them with questions at 785-296-1434.

Parents always have the initial right to demand genetic testing to make sure there’s a DNA link between the father and the child. But by signing the VAP, the parents are agreeing that the father is the biological father. Both parents agree to accept the responsibility to financially support their child, including child support and medical support. Both parents also acknowledge that they have custody and visitation rights and that those rights can only be changed by a court. They can choose to enter into a parenting plan if they agree on those matters.

Asking a judge to decide

The second way to establish paternity is through the judicial process. A paternity action can be brought to court by the child, the mother, a government official or local prosecutor (if the mother is receiving financial benefits on behalf of the child), or the presumed (alleged) father. The matter is heard in the district court in the county where any of the parties live. If anyone requests genetic testing, the court must order it and everyone must submit to testing.

The parties can settle the case at any time or they can go to trial. If they go to trial, the judge will decide whether the alleged father is the baby’s legal and biological father. If the answer is “yes,” the court will issue a final paternity judgment, which means that paternity has been formally established and the father’s name will be added to the birth certificate. The court will also enter an order assessing financial obligations (child, educational, and medical support) and make a decision about custody, visitation (“parenting time”), and residency (where the child will live). Sometimes parents already have a parenting plan in place. When they do, the court will use it unless someone objects and proves that the plan is not in the child’s best interests.

Why should either parent establish paternity?

Some of the benefits of establishing paternity include the following:

  • If the father and mother live together, child support is unlikely to be an issue. But if they don’t, the father and mother may have financial obligations to pay child support, maintain health insurance, and pay medical expenses and educational costs. They can help each other financially.
  • The parents can work together to make decisions that are best for their child.
  • Both parents are entitled to certain custody and visitation rights.
  • Both parents have a voice in making medical decisions for the child.
  • The parents have the right to claim the child as a dependent on their taxes.
  • By exposing children to both parents and both sides of the family, parents bond more closely with their children from a young age and give them a feeling of inclusion and connectedness.

Children also enjoy a wide variety of benefits when paternity is established:

  • Your child’s birth certificate will include both parents’ names.
  • Your child is guaranteed the ability to access medical histories from both sides of the family.
  • A child with a legal father can qualify, through the father, for benefits like Social Security, medical insurance, and other state, federal, and inheritance benefits.
  • Your child can spend time with both parents and get to know both sides of the family.