If you were not married to your child’s mother at the time of the birth, and you did not sign a Voluntary Paternity Acknowledgement form, you are probably not the legal father of your own child. Being the biological father is not enough to establish paternity. You must go through the court system to make it legal.

Both you and your child gain a number of valuable rights if you establish paternity.

What rights does your child gain?

Your child gains the right to your financial support when you are the legal father. This does not just refer to child support. It also means your child becomes your legal heir and beneficiary to your assets if you die, as well as the right to Social Security benefits if you become disabled or die.

Paternity may also affect medical issues. First, your child has the right to health insurance through your employer’s plan, if applicable. Second, you provide access to your family medical history. This can be particularly important if there is a condition such as heart disease that runs in your family.

What rights do you gain?

Maybe you and your child’s mother have a good relationship, and she treats you as if you are the legal father. However, if the mother dies, you do not automatically gain custody. In fact, your child could end up in foster care.

Your child’s mother could also decide to put your child up for adoption, or if she marries, her new husband could go through the stepparent adoption process. Without paternity, you have no say in the matter.

Your child’s mother does not have to let you visit. However, if you establish paternity, you can petition for visitation, joint custody or even sole custody. You have the right to submit your preferred parenting plan to the court and negotiate for the visitation or custody that allows you to develop and maintain a strong father/child bond.