In the United States, the parent-child relationship comes with some important rights and obligations. On the child’s side, every child has the right to receive reasonable support, and to visit and communicate with both parents. On the parents’ side, every parent has the right to parenting time, legal decision-making, visitation, and communication. Parents also have an obligation to provide reasonable support, which takes the form of child support when the parents are separated or divorced.

While a mother’s rights and obligations are immediately bestowed at birth, the father’s rights and obligations can only be enforced once paternity is established. This isn’t a problem for married couples, as paternity is automatically presumed for married parents. It can be a problem for unmarried couples, though, as paternity cannot be confirmed for unmarried parents until the father acknowledges his paternity (voluntarily or involuntarily).

 

The Acknowledgement of Paternity Form

The easiest way to establish paternity is for both parents to complete and sign an Acknowledgement of Paternity Form. In most cases, the hospital will push to have this signed and submitted before the mother and child leave the hospital. If the father is unavailable and the mother isn’t willing to name the father immediately, the parents can submit the form at a later date to the AZ Division of Child Support Services (DCSS), or to family court if there is an open paternity or child support case.

As you are filling out the Acknowledgement of Paternity Form, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Type or print in black ink only.
  • Don’t make corrections on the form, as any signs of alterations (eraser marks, strikethroughs, etc.) will invalidate the form. If you make a mistake, request a new form and start over.
  • Both parents must present a valid ID and sign this form in the presence of a witness or Notary Public. Most hospitals will provide a witness. If you wish to use your own witness, he or she must be 18 or older and cannot be related to either parent by blood or marriage.
  • If both parents are unable to sign the Acknowledgement of Paternity Form at the same time, you’ll need to complete separate (but identical) forms. Turn in both forms at the same time.
  • You may use this form to change the baby’s first, middle, and last name within three months of birth. After that, you may only change the child’s first and middle name with a formal request to the Office of Vital Records.

An Acknowledgement of Paternity Form is a legally binding document. Do not sign this form if you wish to contest the child’s paternity, or if you are threatened or coerced. You may rescind this form within 60 days of signing. After a certain point, you may not be able to renounce paternity—even if a genetics test confirms that you are not the child’s father.

 

Where to Submit an Acknowledgement of Paternity Form

The best time and place to submit an Acknowledgement of Paternity Form is at the hospital after the child is born. A hospital social worker or representative of the AZ Department of Health Services (DHS) should visit the mother’s room immediately after the child is born to take care of this and gather the necessary information for the child’s birth certificate. 

If you are unable to establish paternity while at the hospital, both parents can visit a DCSS office and voluntarily open a case to establish paternity and child support. DCSS will file the Acknowledgement of Paternity Form with the Hospital Paternity Program, and refer the child support case to family court.

Alternatively, you can file an Acknowledgement of Paternity Form directly with the family court if there is already an open child support or custody case. If you choose to file directly with the court, you’ll need to attach the proper court documents (such as this packet from the Superior Court of Arizona in Maricopa County). Note that filing directly with the court may involve court costs and filing fees, so it’s often best to establish paternity before a child support or custody case is opened.

 

How to Address a Question of Paternity

If there’s any question regarding the child’s paternity, you should consult with a family law attorney and consider taking a genetics test with DCSS. Assuming the results of the test are positive (a 95% match or higher), you’ll have peace of mind that you are the child’s father, and nobody can take away your rights as a parent. If the results are inconclusive, you cannot be held responsible for child support.

In cases where the father refuses to sign an Acknowledgement of Paternity, the child’s mother can work with DCSS to open a child support and paternity case. The court will issue an order for a genetics test, and if the alleged father fails to respond or take the required test in a reasonable amount of time (usually 60 days), the court will assign paternity involuntarily. The father can still take a genetics test and dispute a child support order after the court has established paternity, but at a certain point (usually 6 years) even a negative genetics test result cannot overturn a court-established paternity.

 

Child Support and Custody

When unmarried parents choose to live separate lives, the court will need to issue a custody order and a child support order to preserve the child’s rights to reasonable support, visitation, and communication. In evaluating these, the court’s primary focus is the child’s best interests.

Assuming paternity has been established, the court will first determine which parent should be the custodial parent. Next, the court will set the visitation and communication rights for the non-custodial parent (e.g. the father gets parenting time on weekends and certain holidays). Finally, the court will determine the extent to which the non-custodial parent may be involved in important decisions such as the child’s healthcare, education, and religious upbringing. The court will issue a legally-binding custody order to solidify the agreement, though either parent can file a motion to modify the order in the future.

Once the child’s custody has been properly determined, the court will issue a child support order to ensure that the child receives reasonable support from both parents. In Arizona, DCSS is required to garnish child support directly from the non-custodial parent’s wages until the child reaches the age of majority.