Paternity law in California refers to establishing legal parentage. Usually, the court can confirm who the child’s legal parents are. Parentage is assumed if the parents were married when the child was born. However, unmarried parents might need to establish parentage legally, also referred to as legitimation or paternity.

In California, an unmarried father can establish paternity at any point after the birth of the child. 

Establishing parentage is crucial for a child. Additionally, a child with two involved parents can:

  • Learn social and academic skills from both parents
  • Establish unique relationships with each parent
  • Receive financial support from both parents 
  • Access family medical records and history
  • And more

It’s often assumed that mothers play the primary role in a child’s life. But, unmarried fathers must establish paternity since they also play a unique role in a child’s life, such as impacting a child’s emotional development and social skills. 

This article  will cover  the essential information you need to know about establishing paternity and paternity law in California. 

The effects of a father on a child’s life

According to the 2007 UNICEF report on the well-being of children in economically advanced nations, kids in the USA and UK rank incredibly low when it comes to social and emotional well-being,

The report looks at many issues that cause low social and emotional well-being, and one of them is the detrimental effects of a father’s absence in children’s lives.

 An absent father may introduce unnecessary stress on the pregnant mother, which has been shown to have a long-lasting negative impact on the baby, even after it is born. Even more, a present father who might cause or participate in stressful or high-conflict behavior with the pregnant mother can be attributed to negative emotional health of the developing baby. 

On the other hand, a father who is involved in a healthy and supportive relationship with the mother can induce improved weight gain for infants and improved breastfeeding rates.

Additionally, children who stay in contact with their fathers and have an involved father are more likely to develop healthy relationships with peers, less likely to experience depression, and less likely to develop harmful behaviors like lying, stealing, and drug use. Fathers also have an impact on a child’s performance in school. For example, children with actively involved fathers are 43% more likely to earn A’s in school and 33% less likely to repeat a grade than those without fathers. 

Consequently, fathers play a crucial role in a child’s development and outcome. Children with involved fathers are more likely to attend college and get stable jobs. On the other hand, children with absent fathers often suffer from abandonment and low self-esteem. Some children have even turned to drugs, alcohol, and risky behaviors. These psychological issues persist throughout the child’s life into adulthood.

Establishing paternity in California

If paternity is not presumed under California state law, then fathers can establish paternity by: 

  1. Signing a voluntary declaration of paternity

Both parents agree to sign a voluntary declaration of paternity or parentage in this case. It can be done at the hospital when the child is born or at a later stage. Both parents will appear on the child’s birth certificate if done at the hospital. If the parents choose to sign the document at a later stage, the birth certificate can be updated. 

To be eligible for parentage once the form is signed, you need to be:

  • An unmarried birth parent and the genetic father, or
  • Two people, married or unmarried, who chose to have their child reproduction using sperm and/or egg donation

This document must be filed with the California Department of Child Support Services Parentage Opportunity Program (POP). And don’t worry, this process doesn’t require any court appearances. 

It is important to understand that once a voluntary declaration of paternity is filed, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to contest parentage later, even if DNA tests determine that the child is not biologically related to the parent.

  1. Issuing a court order:

Suppose the parents can’t sign a voluntary declaration of parentage. In that case, either parent can petition the family court for a court order to establish paternity or legal parentage. In this case, the court can order a DNA test to confirm the father’s genetic paternity and biological parentage. 

The family court might stipulate that a child has more than two legal parents in some cases. This is done when it is in the child’s best interests to have a third party in their life. 

What are Fathers’ rights to child visitation in California?

In California, mothers and fathers are treated equally before the law. As a result, either parent can have sole custody of the children, or the parents can share custody.

A judge will usually make the final decision about custody and visitation rights and will finalize a parenting plan. These days, the courts favor equal parenting time unless circumstances demonstrate that this is not the best plan for the child(ren). In this case,  the primary custodial parent may have the right to decide where the child lives, within certain conditions. Many parenting plans have a clause that stipulates how far away one parent can move with the children.  

The law says that judges must give custody according to what is in the “best interest of the child.”

To decide what is best for a child, the court will consider:

  • The age of the child,
  • The health of the child,
  • The emotional ties between the parents and the child,
  • The ability of the parents to care for the child,
  • Any history of family violence or substance abuse, and
  • The child’s ties to school, home, and his or her community.

The court will consider a child’s wishes once the child is 14 years old or older. In the end, the court will still make the final decision based on what it determines is in the child’s best interests, even if that contradicts the child’s preference.

Here are the different types of visitation orders that can be granted:

  • Visitation according to a schedule: A visitation schedule helps parents define precise visitation dates and times. This way, both parents know when the child or children will spend time with them, and families can avoid confusion and conflicts. You can include holidays, birthdays, mother’s day, father’s day, and other special events in visitation schedules. 
  • Reasonable visitation: A reasonable visitation order allows parents to decide when the child or children will spend time with which parent. This visitation order is open-ended and relies on the parents being amicable and communicative. As a result, this order only works for parents that have established a good relationship and a flexible schedule. However, this order can also cause complications if there is confusion or disagreement.  Once a child is of driving age, that child may have more input into reasonable visitation 
  • Supervised visitation: This type of visitation order requires the visiting parent to be supervised during the visit. This order is used when the parent hasn’t seen the child in a long time or when the child’s safety is a concern. The person who oversees the visit can be the primary custodial parent, another family member, or more commonly, a professional agency. 
  • No visitation: This order is granted when visitation would cause the child mental, physical, or emotional h
    arm. In this case, it is in the child’s best interest to avoid contact with the parent in question. In this case, the court may order guardianship to someone other than the parents.

Understanding father’s rights to child support in California

Fathers have equal rights to requesting child support from the mother – California law doesn’t discriminate by gender and strictly prohibits it. As a result, if you are a lower-income earner, you can request child support from the mother if she earns more. If the mother refuses to pay child support, you can open a child support case.

Additionally, the California Family Code 4053 states that if the mother doesn’t have a job and refuses to work, you have the right to request a court order that stipulates that she will put in the effort to become employed.

Neither parent can take a lower-paying job or discontinue working altogether as a means to pay less child support. The court can stipulate what a parent’s earning potential is based on income history, education, skills, and other factors. Thus, child support can be based on what a parent has the ability to earn, not necessarily what they currently earn.

As a result, both of the child’s legal parents are responsible for providing financial stability to the child or children – not just the father. 

Child custody and the father’s rights in California

As mentioned above, fathers have equal rights to child custody in California. As a result, fathers can be granted full custody or joint custody, the same as the mother. However, it’s no surprise that fathers are often confused about their rights to financial support since the mother is often considered the primary caregiver and parent.

When it comes to child custody and divorce, family courts treat fathers and mothers equally. Additionally, as a father, you should take your rights to child custody very seriously – whether it’s sole custody or joint custody. If you share custody with the mother, you can take legal action against the mother if she violates your joint custody rights. In extreme and repetitive violation cases, you can even request to alter the custody order. 

How to file a child custody case – A fathers guide

Here’s how to file a child custody case in California:


Step 1: Open a case

For starters, you’ll need to open a family law case. This can be a divorce, legal separation, annulment, sole custody, child support case, or a modification of an existing order. You can request visitation or custody rights when you open a paternity case. 

You should note that most types of family law cases order temporary restraining orders on the parents. In this case, both parties aren’t allowed to alter insurance beneficiaries or take the children out of the state or country without permission.

As a result, you should ask your attorney or family lawyer to inform you about these restraining orders. 

Step 2: Complete your custody forms

The next step is completing the custody forms. You’ll officially ask the family court to decide on child custody during this process.

In the form, you’ll have to note down who you think should have legal and physical custody of the child or children and not down details about child support. You’ll also need to add any existing custody or parenting agreements. And you have the option of attaching additional documents to strengthen your case. In some circumstances, you also request a temporary child custody order while the judge decides. 

Step 3: File with the court

Now it’s time to file the documents and forms with the court. You’ll need to make multiple copies of the documents and pay a set fee. The court clerk will sign off your documents, set a hearing date, and give you two copies of the papers – one copy should be kept by you and the other by the other parent. The original document will remain with the court. 

Step 4: Serve the other parent.

To serve the other party, you’ll need to get another adult (over the age of 18) who isn’t connected to the case to serve the document in person. This must be done a minimum of 16 days before the hearing date. In some family law cases, you have the option to mail the papers. However, you’ll need a document that proves that the papers were served to the other parent in both cases. 

Step 5: File the remaining forms

Next, you’ll need to deliver the document that proves that the papers were served, also known as a completed proof of service form, to the court clerk. This must be done a minimum of five days before your court hearing. If the other party wishes to respond, they can do so via a responsive declaration. A copy of the response must be served to you, and this must be completed nine days before the hearing. 

Now, it’s time to ensure you have all the documents you need and prepare for the court hearing. 

If you’re about to go through a divorce or child custody case, you’ll need a certified professional family lawyer

Fortunately, Westover Law Group is a firm that can help you with that and more. Our experienced family attorneys take the time to get to know you, your family, and your situation. Additionally, we’ll ensure you’re aware of all pros and cons of any decision you need to make. 

Contact us today to learn more about California paternity law and get the best legal representation possible.