Father's Rights in Pennsylvania
Getting paternity established is the first step in getting rights as a father in PA.

There is no denying the strong and loving bond parents have with their children. Parents play a very important role in children’s lives, especially during their younger years – parents are responsible for caring for, supporting, and providing for their children until they can do so for themselves. However, when parents end their relationship through divorce or otherwise, it is the legal system’s duty to protect a child’s rights and ensure both parents are fulfilling their parental responsibilities. When issues like paternity, child custody, and child support arise, these issues are handled in Pennsylvania family law court.

Effect of a Father in a Child’s Life

We have traditionally seen mothers being favored in the family court system – this was due in large part to the fact that traditional families were structured so that the mother stayed home to care for the children and the father worked to financially provide for the family. While mothers do play an important role in their child’s life, so do fathers. Studies have shown that fathers play a key part in the academic and social development of their children, and a link has also been drawn between the involvement of a father in a child’s life and that child’s development of language.

Establishing Paternity in Pennsylvania

When it comes to settling issues involving children in the state of Pennsylvania, one of the most important steps is establishing paternity. When a child’s parents are married, the mother’s husband is automatically assumed to be the child’s legal and biological father without the couple needing to take any additional legal steps. However, when the parents are not married, they need to take additional measures to ensure their child’s paternity is officially established. In the state of Pennsylvania, there is both a voluntary and involuntary way for parents to establish paternity under the law.

When both the child’s mother and presumed father agree on who the child’s father is, paternity can be established voluntarily. To complete this process, both parents must sign a “Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity” form or a VAP. This form needs to be signed by both parties in the presence of a witness who must be over the age of 18 and cannot be either the mother or father signing the form. The VAP form is usually available to be signed at the birthing center or hospital where the child is born and can also be found at the Department of Public Welfare.

Once the form has been signed in the presence of a witness, it is then filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, and now the father’s name can be added to the child’s birth certificate. Should a man claiming to be the child’s father file a VAP form but the mother refuses to sign the form or fails to do so, the Department of Public Welfare registers the claim of paternity on behalf of the child. While this does not give the man legal rights to the child, the man is notified of any proceedings in the future involving adoption of the child by another party – should the man want to have legal rights to the child, he needs to petition the court to establish paternity involuntarily.

When the Paternity is in Question – Involuntary

Establishing paternity involuntary involves a court proceeding where a judge issues an “order of paternity.” This process is considered involuntary because one or more party is disputing the child’s paternity. The party wishing to establish paternity through the court needs to file a “Petition to Determine Paternity” with the family court system to begin the legal process. This process can also be started by a mother filing a “Complaint for Child Support” with the family court system. If either the child’s mother or presumed father is denying paternity, the court can order a DNA test. When the child’s father is biologically determined, the court issues an order of paternity.

Father’s Rights to Child Custody and Visitation

Once the child’s paternity has been established, the court can then move to make other important decisions, such as child custody. Again, the family court system has traditionally favored mothers as the primary custodians of children, meaning the children would reside with and be cared for by the mother most of the time. However, since the days of traditional family structures are far behind us, more and more fathers are asserting their parental rights and petitioning the court for primary custody of their children or joint custody with the mother, an arrangement in which both parents share equal time with the children residing with them and being cared for by them.

Pennsylvania Uses the “Best Interest of the Child” standard

When determining the custody arrangement, a judge consider several factors, all of which revolve around the “best interests of the child” standard. Under the standard, the judge is guided into making a custody decision that best suites the child’s needs instead of relying on the parents’ desires. When joint custody is not an option, something the court finds to be within the child’s best interests, judges then evaluate each parent to choose the best primary custodian. Mothers and fathers are evaluated equally and are not favored based on gender. In the cases where the father proves to be the better primary custodian, the father is awarded primary custody.

Father’s Right to Child Support in Pennsylvania

In cases where a parent is named a primary custodian, he or she can petition the court for a child support order. Child support is a financial payment from the non-custodial parent to the primary custodial parent to help cover the costs of caring for the child – these payments are meant to be used to help fund shelter, food, and clothing for the child while also helping to cover medical costs and other expenses. The amount of child support a parent is ordered to pay is based on several financial factors including the number of children being supported and the parents’ incomes.

When fathers are awarded primary custody, they have an equal right to petition the court for child support as a mother would in the same situation. When child support has been ordered but the non-custodial parent has failed to meet obligations, the non-custodial parent has violated the court’s order for child support and that parent may face serious legal consequences. Additionally, the parent collecting child support can file a court action to have the order enforced – again, every collecting parent, regardless of gender, has a right to enforce child support payments with the help of the court.

How a Father’s Rights Lawyer Can Help

Since mothers have traditionally been favored in the family court system, many fathers have a bleak outlook when it comes to issues of child custody and child support. Often, they believe their “fate is sealed,” and they will not be able to “win” against their former spouse or partner when it comes to issues involving their children. Before assuming anything, fathers should seek the legal advice of a knowledgeable father’s rights lawyer for their state who is also well-versed in the family law system. These professionals can explain fathers’ rights and help them with the legal process.

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