In Florida, when a mother is married and gives birth, the law assumes the mother’s husband is the child’s father. But when the mother is unmarried at the time of the child’s birth, paternity must be established, either voluntarily or through a court order.
If the mother and alleged father agree on who the child's father is, they can sign a “Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity” form. When the parents sign this document, they are acknowledging that the man signing the form is the child's legal father and swearing under oath that the information is true. The acknowledgement becomes final 60 days after it has been signed. After the 60 days elapses, neither parent can revoke it. If either parent wants to revoke it, he or she must prove in court that there was fraud or extreme force was used to get the parent to sign. However, this document alone does not give the parents’ any specific rights relating to shared parenting, parental rights, parental decision making and/or child support.
A court order is required either if there is no written formal voluntary acknowledgement or if the parties want certainty relating to time sharing, inheritance rights, support, shared parenting, parental decision making and other specific matters relating to paternity of a child.
Under Florida law, any of the following persons or agencies can start the court process for establishing paternity and parental rights:
- the child’s mother before or after the child’s birth;
- the man who believes he is the father or who has been identified as the father (also known as the “alleged father”) provided that the child has been born;
- the child through a legal representative; or
- the Florida Department of Revenue -- Child Support Services.
If a government agency establishes paternity, the agency can only make orders regarding child support. For other orders such as a parenting schedule, the mother or alleged father must go to court themselves and get a court order. Only a circuit court order can over rule the decision of the Florida Department of Revenue hearing officer relating to child support in cases where the children are receiving government support or government benefits such as food stamps or subsidized healthcare benefits (e.g., Florida Healthy Kids).
Florida has a system of circuit courts that cover family law cases. Each circuit court covers several counties. The family court judge has the authority to make decisions on paternity cases. The case should be started in the circuit court for the county where either the mother or father resides with the children.
A case can be started before the child’s birth, but a final hearing can't be held until after the child is born.
Whenever a paternity matter is started in court, the judge may also make orders for:
- child support
- health insurance for the child
- parenting time
- decision making authority over the child, and
- payment of either party’s attorney’s fees and court costs, such as the cost to start the case in court.
If the judge does not issue orders for parenting time or decision making for the child, Florida law assumes that the mother has all of the parenting time and sole decision making authority.
Why Establish Paternity?
If a mother is left to support and raise a child on her own, it stands to reason that a child support order would benefit her and her child. Additionally, the alleged father may have health insurance benefits that are available for the child.
Aside from the benefit of having a father’s involvement, a child may also be entitled to government benefits if the dad is disabled or a veteran. The child would also be entitled to inherit from the father’s estate.
Many men are becoming aware of the importance of a father in a child’s life. If the parents are not on good terms, the alleged father may need court orders for his share of parenting time. The father may want joint decision making authority with the mother. This means that the father and mother have an equal voice in decisions concerning the child’s health care, education and religious upbringing among other major issues. A father cannot obtain theses order without establishing his paternity.
Finally, until paternity is established, there is no right of the children to inherit in the event of the death of their biological father.