Channel surf on a weekday afternoon and you will likely come across a variety of “real world” talk shows. These talk shows distinguish themselves by featuring provocative issues such as domestic violence and adultery. One issue that afternoon talk shows are particularly keen about featuring is paternity tests. From Jerry Springer to Maury Povich and beyond, the talk shows continually have segments where the identity of a child’s father is in doubt and must be determined. In a “reality” television “case,” several men usually take a paternity test and the results are then dramatically revealed in the final five minutes of the show.
In the real world, paternity tests are often far less dramatic. Most men choose to keep the results of their test private, rather than being televised on national TV for ratings and publicity. Instead, establishing paternity is usually a private matter that may occur when a couple seeks to work out child support arrangements, but are not sure which man is the father, or when a dispute arises between two unmarried parents. In that context, for the court to issue orders related to the child (child support, custody, visitation and such) there needs to be a legal proceeding pending in which those issues can be addressed and those orders can be made. The court also views paternity matters with a mandate to protect the privacy of all involved, most of all the children. For example, the judge gives parties to paternity matters the option to have non-parties leave the courtroom while their case is being heard; this is generally not true for other family law matters, such as divorce. In addition, court websites that often provide information on family law hearing dates and case filings do not list paternity matters; a third party cannot even learn of the existence of a paternity case from the internet.
According to California state law, paternity can be recognized with several different classifications. The first and most straight-forward of these classifications is “acknowledged father.” In this case, paternity has been proven by the father’s own admission or a common agreement of the child’s parents.
Paternity may also be established based on “presumed father” status. A man is presumed to be the father if he was married to a woman when the child was born, or if he married the woman after the child was born and agreed to help support the child. In both cases, a presumed father is liable to pay child support to the child’s mother.
A third category for paternity sometimes seen is “equitable parent.” In this situation, one spouse has a close parent-like relationship with the child, despite not being biologically related to the child. Equitable parent status does not solely apply to fathers, but it still stands as a means of classifying paternity and determining whether a man must pay child support.
Two additional classifications in matters where paternity is unclear are “unwed father” (when an unmarried man must pay child support because he impregnated a woman), and “stepfather” (when a man marries a woman who already has children). Unwed fathers must pay child support, while stepfathers are not legally obligated to pay child support-unless they have adopted the woman’s children as their own.