It’s an all-too-common scenario: You start raising a child and get emotionally attached, as any good father would. Then you discover text messages or other red flags that seem to indicate your partner cheated on you during the time your child was conceived. You do a DNA paternity test and the results come back with the news you were hoping you wouldn’t see. A paternity test says you’re not the father. So now what?
NOTE: This article is not intended to be legal advice—it is for general informational purposes only. For guidance regarding your particular situation, please contact a social worker or family-law attorney in your area.
If You Never Married your Partner
When you never claimed the child legally
If you and your partner were never married and if you didn’t sign a Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity document or birth certificate but want to maintain your relationship with the child, there are options.
This applies to most U.S. states: The best option is to claim legal guardianship, which you do by first filing a petition with the court in your state. The court decides whether or not you have a case, and will conduct extensive interviews with you, the mother, and the biological father as well (if he’s been identified through legal DNA testing).
There are some basic qualifications for legal guardianship that you should be aware of before going to all the trouble of starting the process:
- You must be a legal adult
- You must have time to care for the child
- You must be able to afford to raise the child
- You must be physically able to fulfill the responsibilities of a legal guardian
- You must prove that you would be a positive influence on the child as well as a role model
The court always makes decisions based on what they deem to be in the best interest of the child, and once the process is complete and if they believe you have satisfied all their requirements, may determine you are qualified to be a legal guardian and continue your relationship with the child, providing the child’s biological parent gives their consent. If the parent(s) does (do) not give consent, you may still have a case for becoming a legal guardian if the parents are deemed unfit to raise the child.
When you claimed the child legally
If you never married the mother but did sign the Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity or birth certificate, it is unlikely that the court would “let you off the hook” for support of that child or agree you should be reimbursed for any child support paid, even if your paternity test proved you are not the biological father.
Some states allow fathers to disestablish paternity so that they are no longer financially obligated for support, but the specific criteria are very narrow and this step rarely includes reimbursement for child support. You should consult a family-law attorney to see what your state law allows.
If You Are/Were Married to Your Partner
If the child was born during your marriage to the mother, you are by default considered the biological father and legal guardian of the child, in nearly all cases.
If you discover the child you thought was biologically yours really isn’t, the emotional pain can be excruciating and you may feel confused about your relationship with them. When a father named Chris discovered his 15-year-old daughter was the result of his wife’s affair, he struggled with knowing what to do. Ultimately, he divorced his wife but maintains his relationship with and support of his daughter—after all, he’s the only dad she’s ever known and he loves her dearly. Sometimes, DNA just doesn’t matter.
Wrapping It Up
The best way to prevent this trauma—especially if you and the mother of the child are not married—is to be proactive about determining paternity before agreeing to sign any acknowledgement of paternity or the birth certificate.
In most states, a man may only have two (2) years after the birth of a child to contest paternity.
After those two years, the process is much more difficult. Insisting on a legal paternity test after the baby’s born or a non-invasive prenatal paternity test before the baby’s born protects men against being trapped in legally-binding agreements and heart-wrenching relationships without full knowledge of your true relationship to the child.