Is Biology Enough? Establishing Paternity In Washington State

Family Law Attorneys Helping Families in Bonney Lake, Gig Harbor, Lakewood, Puyallup, and University Place

In Washington State, like virtually all other U.S. jurisdictions, a biological father is not necessarily a “legal” father. Rather, one establishes the so-called, “legal” relationship (i.e., paternity) between father and child in one of three essential ways:

  • Presumption
  • Voluntary acknowledgment, and
  • Through a parentage action within the Washington courts.

While each method is obviously different, once successful, the result is the same: The legal relationship – as well as the associated rights and obligations – of father and child is established. Here’s a brief look at each of the three methods of establishing paternity.


Paternity by presumption is probably the method with which most of us are familiar. Where a child is born to parents that are married (or in a domestic partnership), parentage is presumed. The mother giving birth and the spouse (or domestic partner) are both presumed to be the legal parents. Their names are listed on the child’s birth certificate and the spouses automatically have all the rights and responsibilities of parenthood. There are no blood tests, etc. taken to prove paternity in any biological sense.

When a child is born to an unmarried mother, there is no presumption as to the legal status of the father. Paternity, if it is to be established at all, must be accomplished either by acknowledgment or a court ruling.

Voluntary Acknowledgement

Washington law allows for the establishment of paternity by voluntary acknowledgment (see RCW 26.26.300 et seq.). Both parties can sign an acknowledgment of paternity before a notary public. The acknowledgment must meet the statutory requirements. If a satisfactory acknowledgment is then filed with the state, paternity is fully established. Most often, the signing of the acknowledgment takes place at the hospital where the child is born. That need not, of course, be the case.

Parentage Action Through the Courts

Where the couple cannot agree to a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, the legal status of paternity can be established through a court proceeding. Normally referred to as a “parentage action,” this method is considered an involuntary establishment.

In a majority of cases, it is the mother who seeks a court order determining paternity. That need not, however, be the case. To the extent that a putative father wants to legitimize his relationship with the child and have the rights of visitation and consultation – as well as the accompanying responsibility of support – the father can file the parentage action.

The court receives evidence – often including genetic testing – and issues an order appropriately. Once the court issues its order as to paternity (and assuming that order isn’t appealed), the father has the same rights and responsibilities as if paternity was established by presumption or voluntary acknowledgment.

Establishing Paternity Can Be Beneficial to All Parties

The establishment of paternity generally provides benefits to all those concerned. Some of those benefits include:

  • Establishment of paternity provides the mother with the necessary legal basis to request child support and share the economic burden of child rearing.
  • Once paternity is established, the father may assert parental rights for parenting time and consultation with regard to decisions affecting the child’s well-being.
  • The child has a relationship with two parents, rather than one.
  • The child has certain rights to property, inheritance, and eligibility for benefits (e.g., Social Security, workers’ compensation survivor benefits, and the like).
  • Paternity establishment generally allows for a stronger father-child bond to be established.

Establishing Paternity is an Important Factor in Development of a Child

Raising a child in this day and age is a challenge, particularly if all the responsibility falls on the mother. Child advocates often suggest that the single most important factor in the positive development of a child is that the child have two – not just one – parents who are involved in the child’s life and who are committed to the welfare of their offspring. Establishing paternity is one step in the establishment of that nurturing environment. In most cases, one or both parties find it advantageous to seek the counsel of a skilled and caring attorney. Bolan Law Group. has more than 30 years of combined experience providing quality family law services to individuals throughout the Pacific Northwest. We can be as aggressive as is necessary. If there’s a simple solution, that’s our first choice. Our family law lawyers work closely with you to resolve matters quickly and economically. Contact us on the web or call our office at (253) 470-2356.

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