Question: What is the Biggest Mistake Fathers Make in Paternity Cases?
Answer: Delaying. Many fathers wait too long to legally establish paternity in the family court. While many fathers do not understand the importance of having the family court declare them the legal father of their child and delay on that basis, other fathers simply wait until the relationship with their child’s mother goes south or a process server serves them (the father) with papers for child support, child custody and/or visitation. This results in substantial problems that could have been avoided by dealing with the issue under the applicable family laws right away.
Some of the problems delay in establishing paternity can cause include decreased chance of primary physical or joint custody, child support arrearages, an appearance of disinterest and the impression that the Arizona courts are not fair to fathers. Let me explain:
Child Custody and Visitation: The courts like consistency in a child’s life. Thus, if a father does not does not have a court order declaring him to be the legal father, it is very likely that the mother has been allowed to prevail on disputed issues regarding those entities that require proof of a parent’s legal rights to make decisions. Such entities include schools, daycares, medical facilities, the Office of Vital Records and the like. Thus, it is likely that when it comes to making its decision about legal custody, the family courts usually go with the perceived status quo.
Similarly, if a father does not have anything done officially in the courts to solidify his rights, the mother has complete control over visitation and it is very possible that the father will be having access to his child less than he would prefer. So, as with custody, the family court may opt for the status quo, meaning that the father will receive the [possibly minimal] visitation he received up to the time the family court became involved. Thus, establishing legal rights early can help prevent a negative status quo. Of course, many fathers have their children residing with them or while also living with the child’s mother and that is a very relevant factor the court considers when determining child custody and visitation, regardless of when the family court officially declares paternity and visitation rights.
Child Support Arrearages (Arrears): At the time the family court establishes legal paternity (via an "Order of Paternity"), the family court almost always also establishes child support. Like it or not, the family court also routinely orders that child support be made retroactive to a certain date. How far back the family court can go in retroactively apply child support varies based on a case’s particular facts but the normal rule of law is three years. Thus, if a father either paid nothing or underpaid pursuant to the Child Support Guidelines, the father will have to pay both his current support and the arrears. In addition, the court can order that the father pay costs associated with the child’s birth and the mother’s expenses related thereto. Therefore, it is best to legally establish paternity quickly to avoid having large child support arrearages and other amounts owed.
The Appearance of Disinterest: It is possible that when a father waits too long to officially request his legal rights to his child, a family court judge could see it as a sign of disinterest. This varies from situation to situation but in the case where a father does not live with his child, it looks better when the father shows enough interest to study up on his legal rights and initiate court proceedings to officialize custody and visitation (parental access), decision-making rights and child support. In particular, judges may see in negative terms a father’s request for visitation and other legal rights done only after a mother brings an action in the family court to establish paternity and child support.
Unfairness to Fathers: There may a number of factors that make some believe that the family courts are not fair to fathers when it comes to child custody, child support and parenting time. Obviously, that is a big debate. However, my personal experience shows me that the perception is worse for those fathers who delay establishing paternity. As discussed above, delay can mean that mothers have an advantage over fathers.
Source: "What is the Biggest Mistake Fathers Make in Paternity Cases?" by Trent Wilcox, published at his Arizona Divorce & Family Law blog.