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Today, a growing percentage of couples in the U.S. are having children out of wedlock. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during 2012 nearly 41 percent of babies who were born in the U.S. were born to unwed mothers. For the fathers of these children, it’s important to take steps to establish legal paternity.

Regardless of circumstances, an unwed mother who has a baby is automatically awarded sole child custody. This means that even fathers who are in committed relationships with their child’s mother have no legal rights to that child unless and until they take steps to establish paternity.

In Florida, paternity can be established through the completion of an Acknowledgement of Paternity, an Administrative Order that is based on genetic testing or by a Court Order. In cases where the mother and father agree about paternity, both can sign an Acknowledgement of Paternity in the hospital after a child’s birth or at a later date. The document must then be mailed to the Florida Office of Vital Statistics where legal records are maintained and the father’s name is then added to the child’s birth certificate.

In cases where paternity is established via an Administrative Order, both the mother and alleged father submit to a genetic test. In cases where a father’s paternity is confirmed, an Administrative Order of Paternity is issued and a father’s name is then added to the child’s birth certificate.

In cases where a mother or father dispute paternity, a Court Order may be issued at which time both parties are required to appear before a judge who will hear the case. Evidence is then presented at trial to help establish paternity and, in many cases, a genetic test may be used to help confirm or deny paternity.

Every child has the right to know and develop a relationship with his or her father. Florida fathers who fail to establish paternity have no legal rights to a child and are not allowed to legally petition for visitation rights or child custody. Establishing paternity is critical, therefore, to ensure a father is able to provide a child with vital emotional and financial support.

Source: Florida Department of Revenue, “Establishing Legal Paternity,” 2014