A Complaint to Establish Paternity, sometimes referred to as a Complaint for Paternity, is filed when there is a need to determine the biological father of a child who has been born out of wedlock and/or to establish the legal rights and responsibilities of the father to the child. When the mother and father agree that the father is in fact the biological father, paternity can be established voluntarily. To voluntarily establish paternity, both the father and mother must sign what’s called a “Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity” form. This is usually done at the hospital when the child is born, but can also be executed after the fact. If either the mother or the father denies paternity, then through the filing of a paternity action a Court may order DNA testing of the mother, child, and father. The DNA test is performed by collecting buccal (cheek) cells found on the inside of a person's cheek using a buccal or cheek swab. These swabs have wooden or plastic stick handles with a cotton on synthetic tip. The collector rubs the inside of a person's cheek to collect as many buccal cells as possible, which are then sent to a laboratory for testing.
Once paternity is established, the Court has the authority to order child support and health insurance for the benefit of the child. In determining the amount of the child support obligation or in approving the agreement of the parties, the court shall apply the child support guidelines. There is a rebuttable presumption that the amount resulting from application of the guidelines is the appropriate amount of child support to be ordered. Child support for a child born out of wedlock must be paid until that child is deemed emancipated under the same criteria for a child of divorcing parents. In addition to setting a prospective child support order, in Massachusetts, the Court shall also order past support for the period from the birth of the child to the entry of the order, taking into consideration the father's ability to pay and any support provided by the father during such period. In Rhode Island, the father’s liabilities for past education and necessary support and maintenance are limited to a period of six (6) years next preceding the commencement of the paternity action.
Once paternity is established, the Court may also make orders relative to custody (both physical custody/placement and visitation or the increasing more politically correct term "parenting time." The best interests of the child standard applies equally in divorce and paternity cases. In Massachusetts, in a case where the parties are parents of a minor child but have never been married, the law provides that, in the absence of a court order altering the arrangement, the mother has sole legal and physical custody upon the birth of the child. That is not to say, however, that in appropriate circumstances the Court would not grant joint physical and/or legal custody or even award sole physical and/or legal custody to the father.