When a child is born, the parents of that child are responsible for caring for, providing for, and protecting that child through the first many years of his or her life. This care is crucial to children growing, thriving, and becoming productive adults. Since this care is so important, many states including West Virginia have put laws into place to ensure children receive the support and care they require and also to protect the parent/child relationship. When issues, such as paternity, child custody, and child support, arise between parents, these issues are usually heard in the family court system.

Effect of a Father in a Child’s Life

Mothers are often viewed as the most important relationship children have in their lives. This is often because mothers have traditionally stayed home to care for children and maintain the household while fathers worked to financially support the family. While this is still the structure of many families, more and more mothers have become the breadwinners of their households, and more fathers are staying home to care for their offspring. With the increase in stay-at-home fathers, we are seeing an increased emphasis placed on the important role fathers play in their children’s lives.

Fathers have proven to be equal to their female counterparts when it comes to caring for and raising children, but fathers also play other important roles. Studies suggest that children who have loving and involved fathers or father-figures in their lives have an easier time developing language and perform better academically. Other studies suggest that having a present father also has a positive impact on children’s overall development as well as their development of social skills. Since a father’s role is important to a child’s upbringing, family court judges work to keep both parents involved in children’s lives.

Voluntarily and Involuntarily Establishing Paternity in West Virginia

It is more common nowadays for couples to have children outside of marriage. Many unmarried yet committed couples make the decision to have children out of wedlock because they do not wish to get married or do not want to get married right away. In other circumstances, couples have ended their relationship even though the female partner is pregnant or the child’s presumed father decided he wanted nothing to do with the child’s mother or possibly the child as well. In any case where unmarried parents have a child, they need to take steps to establish their child’s paternity.

“Paternity” refers to the relationship between father and child. In the state of West Virginia, paternity gives a father the right to petition the court for custody or visitation of his child and makes fathers legally obligated to provide their child with financial support. These obligations and rights do not take effect until the child’s paternity has been established. In West Virginia, there are two primary methods in which parents can establish paternity – voluntarily when the parents are in agreement in regards to paternity or involuntarily when the parents are not in agreement.

When both parents agree on the child’s paternity, they have the option to sign a “Notarized Affidavit of Paternity” to legally establish paternity. This form needs to list the social security numbers of both parents, their addresses, and that they both acknowledge the child’s paternity. The affidavit portion of the form should clearly state that both individuals understand the obligations and rights of paternity as well as the alternatives available to them for acknowledging paternity. Once this has been filed with the state registrar, paternity has been established.

If one party involved in the paternity case does not acknowledge the child’s paternity, he or she is required to file a “Petition to Establish Paternity” with the court. Once this has been filed, the filing party also must serve the other party with a copy of the petition. After serving the petition, if the other party still does not agree to the child’s paternity, the court orders all parties to participate in genetic testing. This testing helps to establish the child’s biological father – once this has been established, the party is named the child’s legal father and takes on those parental responsibilities.

Any of the following parties has the right to file a “Petition to Establish Paternity”:

  • A woman who is unmarried and has a child
  • A woman who is married but believes a man besides her husband is the father
  • An individual who has legal or physical custody of a child
  • A guardian of a child
  • A man who claims to be the father of a child he had outside of wedlock
  • The Child Support Enforcement Bureau for the state of West Virginia

To establish a child’s paternity through the court system, the filing party must file his or her petition before the child turns 18 years of age unless the child him or herself is filing the petition, in which case the petition can be filed at any time. Once paternity has been established in court, the judge can make other important determinations regarding the child including child custody, visitation, and child support all while holding the parents to their obligations and their rights to the child.

Father’s Rights to Child Custody and Visitation

When making child custody and visitation determinations in court, judges in West Virginia are guided by the “best interests of the child standard.” Under this standard, judges are required to make West Virginia child custody and visitation decisions that best support the child’s wellbeing, regardless of what either parent desires. Often, having both parents equally involved in the child’s life is within his or her best interests, which is why judges always work to come to a joint custody agreement whenever possible. When a joint custody agreement is not possible, the judge moves to name a primary custodian.

A child’s primary custodian is the parent with whom the child lives and is under the care of for most of the time. When choosing a primary custodian, the judge evaluates the parents equally and does not favor one parent over the other based on gender. In cases where the child’s father is proven to be the better caregiver, the father is awarded primary custody and the mother is often awarded visitation based on the circumstances surrounding the case. When a father has primary custody, he also has the right to seek child support from the child’s mother.

How a Father’s Rights Lawyer Can Help

Paternity, child custody, visitation, and child support are all very emotional issues, which become even more magnified when they are handled in family court. These emotional topics combined with the sometimes confusing family law system can leave fathers wondering what their rights are and worrying when or how much they will see their children. Fathers’ rights attorneys can be an invaluable resource for fathers who are facing these issues – fathers’ right professionals can explain their client’s rights, make sure those rights are respected, and help their client throughout the case.

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