Family Law: Washington Paternity


Area of Law: 

father and daughter

Paternity is the acknowledgement, both legally and socially, of a parental relationship between a father and his child. As common law, any child born during a marriage is presumed to be the husband's child. However, this presumption may be overruled through a showing of evidence that the child is not in fact the husband's biological offspring.


Establishing paternity can provide many benefits to the child, including the following:

  • Knowledge of their identity
  • Legal right to child support
  • Potential relationship with the biological father
  • Eligibility for medical and life insurance benefits
  • Rights to an inheritance, Social Security and veteran's benefits
  • Access to the father's medical history
  • Positive influence of a father figure

If paternity becomes an issue, then either the mother, father, or the child may petition a Washington court to make a determination. The petition, or lawsuit, may either be brought about by a private individual or the state. 


It is common for a child's mother to bring a paternity action in order to obtain child support from the biological father. The state may commence a lawsuit through a prosecutor's office when the mother applies for public assistance so that the state can be reimbursed for any aid given. An individual who is identified as being a child's father in a paternity suit is called a putative father. When the court names the putative father as a defendant in a paternity case, he has the choice of either consenting to the entry of a paternity judgment or contesting the action. 


If the father acknowledges paternity of his child by consent, he must sign a document called an Affidavit Acknowledging Paternity. When the putative father signs this order, he is consenting to paternity for life, and a court is unlikely to allow him to avoid the responsibilities of paternity, including child support payments, even if it is later proven that he is not actually he biological father. An individual who is being asked to sign such an order should not do so without seeking the legal advice of a family attorney. 


If the putative father contests paternity, a DNA test is usually performed to determine the possibility of paternity. This is done by obtaining a cheek swab from the father, the mother, and the child. The probability percentages of DNA tests vary from state to state, but they are usually considered 95 to 99 percent reliable. They are also effective at excluding a person who is not the father. DNA tests are routinely admissible as evidence in paternity cases.


Most states have laws that give courts the power to order the putative father to submit to DNA testing. A putative father can be held in civil contempt for refusing to obey a court order, which can result in a fine and/or jail time. Paternity can also be established by default if the putative father refuses to attend a court hearing or go for paternity testing after he was properly served with notice.


Paternity fraud occurs when a man is falsely identified as being the only possible biological father of a child because the mother withholds information that there may be more than one putative father. If you are served with paternity papers, you should insist on DNA testing since it is estimated that nearly 33 percent of men who have been DNA tested are found not to be the biological father of the child. 


In some states, paternity can also be established by publication of the putative father's name in the newspaper. Check with a family attorney in Washington about the ramifications of refusing to take a paternity test. 


Although all states have some sort of uniform parentage act, only Delaware, Texas, Washington, North Dakota, Utah, Oklahoma, and Wyoming have adopted a version of the most recent paternity law, the Uniform Parentage Act of 2002. This federal law provides a format for voluntary acknowledgement as well as standards for genetic testing. 


For more legal assistance about paternity laws in Washington, go to the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services website.