(redirected from Paternity (Disambiguation))
Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus, Medical, Encyclopedia.


The state or condition of a father; the relationship of a father.

English and U.S. Common Law have recognized the importance of establishing the paternity of children. In the United States, a child born outside a legal marriage relationship will lose Child Support and inheritance rights if the fatherhood of the child is not legally established. The father may voluntarily acknowledge paternity in a legal document filed with a court or may agree to have his name listed as the father on the child's birth certificate. If the man disputes fatherhood, the mother or the state government may initiate a legal proceeding, known as a paternity action, to adjudicate fatherhood.

The common law also established the "marital paternity presumption," which holds that a child born during a marriage is the offspring of the husband. Therefore, a child born as a result of the wife's adulterous affair is recognized as a legitimate child of the marriage. This rule recognized that Illegitimacy brought social stigma as well as severe economic penalties to a child, including the inability to inherit from the husband of the child's mother. By establishing a presumption of paternity and therefore legitimacy, the rule promoted family stability and integrity.

This rule was developed at a time when no medical tests existed to prove paternity. In addition, a husband could not testify that he had no access to his wife at the time of conception. A husband could rebut the marital presumption only by proving his impotence or his absence from the country.

By the late nineteenth century, U.S. courts began to allow the defense of impossibility to rebut the marital presumption. The question of paternity became a fact that could be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence that procreation by the husband was impossible.

The Impossible Heir

In contemporary law the legal determination of paternity generally rests on the results of blood and genetic testing. However, there are times when it can be proved that it was impossible for a husband to be the father of his wife's child because the husband was absent during the period when conception occurred.

In an unusual reversal of modern law on paternity, the Alabama Supreme Court, in Tierce v. Ellis, 624 So. 2d 553 (1993), found that Dennis Tierce was the legitimate son of William Tierce, even though William was serving overseas in the armed forces during World War II when Dennis was conceived.

William Tierce returned from the war to Alabama in December 1945 to discover that his wife Irene was six months pregnant. He immediately filed for Divorce on the ground of Adultery. The divorce was granted in February 1946. On April 4, 1946, Dennis Tierce was born. William Tierce was erroneously listed as the father on the birth certificate, but Tierce never knew of this mistake. He remarried and had five children, including his daughter, Sheila Ellis.

William Tierce died in 1972. When the executors of his estate filed a list of heirs in 1989, they listed Dennis as William's son. Sheila Ellis filed suit, challenging the paternity of Dennis and his status as an heir. The trial court ruled that it was impossible for Dennis to be the biological son of William.

The Alabama Supreme Court reversed, basing its decision on two grounds. First, under the Alabama Uniform Parentage Act (Ala. Code §§ 26-17-1 et seq. [1992 and Supp. 1994]), a husband is presumed to be the father of a child born within three hundred days of a divorce. Dennis was born sixty days after his parents' divorce. Second, the court invoked the Common Law rule of repose, which requires a prompt disposition of a legal dispute. The court concluded that because William Tierce did not seek a paternity judgment during his divorce proceedings in 1946, his daughter could not now attempt to rebut the marital paternity presumption. Therefore, Dennis Tierce, the impossible heir, could claim a share of the estate of a person he never knew and to whom he was not related.

In 1973 the Commissioners on Uniform Laws proposed the Uniform Parentage Act (UPA), which sought to establish a consistent rule on adjudicating paternity disputes. The UPA, which has been adopted by 18 states, continued to use the marital paternity presumption. In addition, it presumes a mother's husband to be the natural father of a child if the child is born during the marriage or within 300 days after the marriage is terminated. The UPA does state, however, that a presumption of paternity may be rebutted by clear and convincing evidence.Modern science has made the adjudication of paternity issues easier. Modern blood and genetic testing can accurately determine paternity. Human leukocyte antigen tissue typing can provide up to a 98 percent probability that a certain man is the father of a particular child. The use of DNA testing provides near-positive paternity identification. Many states that have adopted the UPA have created a presumption of paternity based solely on genetic testing. Some courts have questioned the need for the marital presumption at all because of the certainty produced by testing.

The evolving state of the martial presumption of paternity can be seen in the revised Uniform Parentage Act (UPA), published in 2000. While the new UPA retains all of the original presumptions related to marriage, it eliminates the clear and convincing evidence standard for rebutting an assumption of paternity. Instead it states that the presumption may be rebutted "only by admissible results of genetic testing excluding that man as the father of the child or identifying another man as the father of the child." The most recent UPA states: "The existence of modern genetic testing obviates this old approach to the problem of conflicting presumptions when a court is to determine paternity."

In determining a husband's paternity, the court may deny a request for genetic testing if it finds by clear and convincing evidence that the conduct of the mother or the presumed father means it would be unfair to allow that party to deny parentage and it would be wrong to end the father-child relationship. According to the new UPA, the alleged biological father of a child born to a married mother now has standing to bring an action to determine the existence or non-existence of the parent-child relationship. The new UPA also adopts a time limit to rebut the marital presumption to two years following the birth of the child if the presumed father lived in the same household as the child or treated the child as his own.

In addition to the changing provisions of the new UPA, genetic testing has also allowed most states to expand the categories of persons who can challenge the martial presumption and increase the chances that such challenges will be successful. With that, the marital presumption of paternity has become eroded. Twenty-two states now set a scientific standard for a conclusive presumption of non-paternity, while eight states establish a scientific standard for a conclusive presumption of paternity.

But despite the new emphasis on genetic testing, both the newly revised UPA and most state laws and courts put some emphasis on the best interests of the child. In states such as Arizona, Wisconsin, Kansas, Maryland, Montana and Minnesota, courts have said that the best interest of the child must be taken into account when determining paternity. In some cases, courts have upheld the right to refuse genetic tests if it is determined they are not in the best interest of the child; others have stated the best interests of the child must be taken into account after the genetic testing determines paternity.

Further readings

Glennon, Theresa. 2000. "Somebody's Child: Evaluating the Erosion of the Marital Presumption of Paternity." West Virginia Law Review 102.

McDuff, Lawrence J. 1994. "The 'Inconceivable' Case of Tierce v. Ellis." Alabama Law Review 46.

National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. 2000. "Uniform Parentage Act." Uniform Laws Annotated. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group


DNA Evidence; Family Law; Paternity Suit.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


natural fatherhood. In English law it is possible to obtain a declaration of paternity that a man is the father of a child. In Scots family law, a man is presumed to be the father of a child if he was married to the mother at any time during the period beginning with the child's conception and ending with his or her birth. This makes the father liable to support the child and gives him parental rights automatically. The presumption can be rebutted on balance of probabilities. There is rebuttable presumption that registration by a man as the father of a child means that he is the father of the child.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

PATERNITY, The state or condition of a father.
     2. The husband is prima facie presumed to be the father of his wife's children, born during coverture, or within a competent time afterwards pater is est quem nuptim demonstrant. 7 N. S. 553. But this presumption may be rebutted by showing circumstances which render it impossible that the husband can be the father. 6 Binn. 283; 1 Browne's R. Appx. xlvii.; Hardin's R. 479; 8 East, R. 193; Stra. 51, 940. 4 T. R; 356;. 2 M. & K. 349; 3 Paige's R. 139; I Sim. & Stu. 150; Turn. & Russ. 138; 1 Bouv. Inst. n. 302, et seq.
     3. The declarations of both or one of the spouses, however, cannot affect the condition of a child born during the marriage. 7 N. S. 553; 3 Paige's R. 139. Vide Bastard;. Bastardy;, Legitimacy; Maternity; Pregnancy.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.