Becoming a father can be a watershed moment in anyone's life — a time filled with joy, excitement, and nervousness at the incredible responsibility placed upon you. However, learning you're a father months or even years after the birth of your child can carry with it a whole host of different emotions, including confusion and trepidation about the potentially difficult path ahead of you. Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to quickly build a legal and emotional relationship with your child, even if you've only just discovered him or her. Read on to learn more about your legal options when it comes to supporting and establishing visitation with a child you've just learned is your own.
Where should you begin after discovering you have a child?
Although it's almost always best to go through a formal court process rather than rely on the mother of your child to provide parenting time, where and how you begin this process will largely depend on the cordiality of the relationship between you and your child's mother. If you get along relatively well, you may be able to exercise visitation immediately and begin purchasing necessary items or paying child support (while getting your ducks in a row to head to court). If you're less friendly with each other or you've already been refused access to your child, you'll want to head to your local paternity court.
Once you've filed a petition for paternity (a relatively short form that is available on many state courts' websites), the court will summon your child's mother or guardian to a hearing and may require you to provide a blood sample so that paternity can be established. At this hearing, the judge will take testimony from both you and your child's guardian to determine what co-parenting arrangements — from supervised visitation to overnight visits — would be in the best interest of the child. The judge may also ask for documentation of income and your child's expenses to determine an appropriate child support payment.
Can you be assessed back child support if you weren't aware you had a child?
One issue of concern to many "surprise parents" is whether they'll be required to pay back child support for the period during which they were unaware of the child's existence. The answer to this can vary widely from state to state, but most have provisions giving judges discretion to grant or waive back child support. A judge may be much more likely to reduce the child support obligation of someone whose attempts to contact the child (or mother) were rebuffed, while someone who should have known of (or suspected) the child's existence or who made himself difficult to find may be assessed back child support.