Acknowledgment of Paternity: How Does It Work?

Larry and Lakshmi are the parents of Tom, a child who was born out of wedlock. Larry wants to acknowledge that he is Tom’s father. What steps does Larry need to take to acknowledge paternity in Massachusetts?

The most common method of establishing parentage is by a process called voluntary acknowledgment of paternity. If no acknowledgement of paternity takes place, then a complaint may be brought under M.G.L. c. 209C seeking adjudication of parentage.

According to the law, acknowledgment forms must be in writing; they “shall be acknowledged in the presence of a notary public and shall include the residence addresses and social security numbers of each of the parents, the residence address of the child and, if available, the social security number of the child.” The acknowledgment forms must be filed with the court or with the register of vital statistics. An acknowledgment form which is duly executed and filed under the statute will be considered a valid basis for actions regarding custody and support issues. Upon filing the acknowledgment, however, the parties may also file with the court an agreement as to custody and support.

The statute provides a 60-day period by which either party may rescind the acknowledgment. After the 60-day period expires, the acknowledgment may only be contested on the basis of fraud, duress, or material mistake, and the action must be brought within one year from executing the acknowledgment of paternity.

In an important case, the father of a child had filed an acknowledgment of paternity in 1993, after a case was filed against him by the Department of Revenue. The father agreed to pay child support as well. He did not initially ask to undergo genetic testing to prove that he was the biological father of the child. He acted as the child’s father for the following years and paid support. Fast forward to 1999: the Department filed a new action against the father, seeking to increase the weekly support amount. The father at that point sought an order for genetic testing from the Court, claiming that he felt he was not the child’s father. The trial court denied that request. Unbeknownst to the mother, the father then took the daughter for genetic testing on his own, and the tests showed that he was not the child’s biological father. Subsequently, he moved to relinquish his child support obligation and also sought retroactive damages for the support payments he had made in the past. The trial court held that the father was entitled to relief going forward, but not retroactively.

On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court held that the father was not entitled to relief, as he waited too long to contest paternity. “There is a compelling public interest in the finality of paternity judgments,” the Court reasoned. “[W]e conclude that, as a consequence of the father’s long delay before he challenged the paternity judgment, Cheryl’s interests now outweigh any interest of his…Our conclusion is consistent with our prior jurisprudence, and the decisions of numerous other courts, that a father’s challenge to a paternity judgment may be untimely even though he may establish conclusively that he is not a child’s genetic parent.”

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