Handbook on Child Support Enforcement

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS),
Administration for Children and Families (ACF),
Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE),
370 L’Enfant Promenade, S.W.,
Washington, D.C. 20447
OCSE website


A father can acknowledge paternity by signing a written admission or voluntary acknowledgement of paternity. All States have programs under which birthing hospitals give unmarried parents of a newborn the opportunity to acknowledge the father’s paternity of the child. States must also help parents acknowledge paternity up until the child’s eighteenth birthday through vital records offices or other entities designated by the State. Parents are not required to apply for child support enforcement services when acknowledging paternity.

Under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (PRWORA) an acknowledgment of paternity becomes a finding of paternity unless the man who signed the acknowledgment denies that he is the father within 60 days. If it becomes necessary to seek child support, a finding of paternity creates the basis for a child support order. A support order against the father cannot be established for a child who is born to unmarried parents until paternity has been established.

It is important to establish paternity as early as possible. While CSE offices must try to establish paternity for any child up to the child’s 18th birthday, it is best to do it as soon after the child’s birth as possible. If the man will not acknowledge that he is the father, the CSE agency can order genetic testing. These tests are simple to take and highly accurate.

What are the benefits of establishing paternity?

Paternity establishment can provide basic emotional, social, and economic ties between a father and his child.

Once paternity is established legally, a child gains legal rights and privileges. Among these may be rights to inheritance, rights to the father’s medical and life insurance benefits, and to social security and possibly veterans’ benefits. The child also has a chance to develop a relationship with the father, and to develop a sense of identity and connection to the “other half” of his or her family. It may be important for the health of the child for doctors to have knowledge of the father’s medical history.

What will the enforcement caseworker need to know to try to establish paternity?

The caseworker needs as much information as you can give about the alleged father and the facts about your relationship with him, your pregnancy, and the birth of your child. Some of these questions may be personal. States must keep the information that you give confidential.

The caseworker will also want to know whether he ever provided any financial support, or in any other way acknowledged-through letters or gifts-that the child was his. A picture of the alleged father with the child is helpful, as well as any information from others who could confirm your relationship with him.

What if he denies he is the father, or says he’s not sure?

Paternity can be determined by administrative procedures which take into account highly accurate tests conducted on blood or tissue samples of the man, mother and child. Genetic test results indicate a probability of paternity and can establish a legal presumption of paternity. These tests have an accuracy range of between 90 and 99 percent. They can exclude a man who is not the biological father and can also show the likelihood of paternity if he is not excluded. Each party in a contested paternity case must submit to genetic tests at the request of either party or the CSE agency.

If genetic tests are necessary, who pays for them?

If the State orders the tests, the State must pay the cost of the testing. If the father is identified by the tests, some States will charge him for their costs.

If a party disputes the original test result, he or she can pay for a second genetic test and the State must then obtain additional testing.

What happens if I am not sure who the father is?

If the father could be one of several men, each may be required to take a genetic test. These tests are very accurate, and it is almost always possible to determine who fathered a baby and to rule out any one who did not.

My boyfriend is on a military base abroad and I am about to have his baby. How can I establish paternity and get an order for support?

You can apply for child support enforcement services at your local CSE office. If he is willing to sign documents to acknowledge paternity and agree to support, then enforcement can proceed by a wage withholding order. If the man is on a naval ship or lives on a military base abroad and will not acknowledge paternity, it may be necessary to wait until he returns to the United States for blood work to be done.

The father of my child said I would never get a paternity judgment on him because he’d just leave the State. What happens in this case?

If the accused father fails to respond to a formal complaint properly served upon him, a default judgment can be entered in court. The default judgment establishes paternity. At the same time, a court order for support may be issued. If the parent has disappeared, State and Federal Parent Locator Services can be called on to help find him. States must give full faith and credit to paternity determinations made by other states in accordance with their laws and regulations.

My boyfriend and I are still in high school, and our baby is 6 months old. Why should legal paternity be established if the father has no money to support the child?

When the father gets older and starts working, he will be able to support the child. Having paternity established legally, even if the order for support is delayed, means collecting child support will be easier later.

My baby’s father lives out of State. Can I still have paternity established?

Yes, you can. If the baby was conceived in your State, or the father used to live there, your State can claim “long arm” jurisdiction over him, and require that he appear for paternity establishment. If your State cannot claim jurisdiction, the CSE Agency can petition the State where he lives to establish paternity. Your caseworker will be able to tell you what needs to be done in your case.

What happens after paternity is established?

If it becomes necessary to establish a child support order, a CSE caseworker may discuss the child’s needs with the father and what he is required to pay for child support according to the State guidelines. The court may also include at this time the exact terms of custody, visitation, and other parental rights.

I don’t want my daughter’s father in our lives. I’d rather work two jobs and support my child myself than have him establish paternity. As long as I don’t receive public assistance, why does establishing paternity matter?

There are few situations when it is not in children’s best interest to have paternity established. Knowing their father and having his emotional and financial support is very important to children. Also, remember, the child’s father has the right to request genetic testing to prove that he is the father and he can then establish the legal right to a relationship with his child.

I don’t have any way to support my baby without help, but my baby’s father is dangerous. I’m afraid to tell the caseworker who he is.

If you are worried about your or the baby’s safety if you try to establish paternity, if you need to be in a cash assistance program, you may talk with your caseworker about showing “good cause” for not naming the father.

My child’s father wants to declare paternity. Is there an easy way for him to do this?

All States offer parents the opportunity to voluntarily acknowledge a child’s paternity until the age of 18. Forms are available at the hospital or from the State vital records agency. More information is available from the CSE agency.

See also…

Law Wiki: Child support enforcement offices

Law Wiki: Child support help

Child Custody and Support – Forum