Fathers' Rights in Unmarried Situations

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid


Becoming a father is a great experience. With the joy of a new child, come many new duties.

Parents make many decisions waiting for the birth of their baby.

  • What religion will the child practice?
  • Where will the child go to school?
  • Who will be their doctor?
  • What happens if I become disabled or die?

Questions like this define your family and shape your child's identity. If parents are not married at the time of a child's birth, a father's participation in making these important decisions may be limited until paternity is established.

Paternity is the law's way of recognizing you as the father of your child. Unmarried fathers should establish paternity for many reasons. Paternity allows you to:

  • participate in making decisions about how your child is raised
  • provide insurance coverage
  • enforce visitation and custody rights
  • allow your child to receive government disability or death benefits as your dependent, and
  • receive notice of any adoption proceedings involving your child.

The following steps will help you establish paternity so that you can protect your rights as a father.

Before Birth
A father may declare his paternity even before a child is born. To do this, you must file a Declaration of Paternity with the Iowa State Registrar of Vital Statistics. A Declaration can be filed prior to the birth of a child, but no later than the date of the filing of a Petition to Terminate Parental rights. Filing a Declaration of Paternity is free unless you need the assistance of the registrar in searching for information from the department files. The Declaration of Paternity does not legally establish paternity of the child, but it can be used as evidence of paternity in an action to establish paternity or child support.

It is especially important to file a Declaration of Paternity if you believe that the mother may put up the child for adoption. As part of the adoption process, the Declaration of Paternity registry must be checked to determine if there is a known father of the child. Filing a Declaration of Paternity requires the state to notify you if an adoption case is filed. If you do not file a Declaration of Paternity, you may not be notified of the adoption.

A person who declares paternity should include in the Declaration all of the following:

  • Name
  • Address
  • Social Security number
  • Name, last known address, and Social Security number (if known) for the child's mother, and • (If known) the name of the child, and date and location of birth.

Send the Declaration of Paternity to:

Iowa Department of Public Health
Bureau of Vital Statistics
Lucas State Office Building

321 E.12th Street
Des Moines, Iowa 50319-0075

After Birth
Declarations of Paternity help protect your rights before the baby is born, but what should you do after the baby is born? Under Iowa Code 252A.3A, the paternity of a child born out of wedlock may be legally established by completing and filing an Affidavit of Paternity with the State Registrar. The State Registrar will then register you as the father of the child.

Affidavits of paternity are available from the hospital where the child is born. The hospital staff is trained to assist you in completing the necessary forms. A notary on staff is usually there to witness the signing of your documents.

Paternity will not be established until the affidavit is registered. The registration is with the State Registrar's office. The hospital can send the documents in for you, or the hospital can provide written instructions for you to return the affidavit after leaving the hospital. If you need an affidavit after the child leaves the hospital, you may obtain forms at your county registrar's office, the state registrar's office, or your local child support recovery unit.

Affidavits of paternity must include:

  • statements of both parents confirming paternity of the child
  • name and birth date of the child
  • social security number and current address for each parent, and
  • signatures of each parent, signed before a notary.

It is important to note that the Affidavit of Paternity requires the consent of the mother. If the mother will not consent to the Affidavit, you may have to file an action in court to establish your paternity.

Court Action
Court action may become necessary if the mother refuses to consent to the Affidavit of Paternity. In a court action, you may ask the court to establish paternity, and you may ask for visitation rights or custody. If the mother will not consent to signing an Affidavit of Paternity you can file a court action to establish your paternity. The mother will have sole custody until your paternity is established.

During a court action to establish paternity, blood or genetic testing may be used to determine whether you are the father. The request for testing can be made by you or the mother, or the court can order testing. The cost of genetic testing is paid by either or both parents. The cost will be determined by the court in accordance with Iowa law. The testing must be done by a laboratory found to be accredited by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

The court will have an expert examine the testing results. Even if the expert determines that you are the father, the mother can challenge these results. This may lead to more testing, so be sure to cooperate with any more court ordered testing. Once the court establishes you as the father you will have full rights to ask for visitation or custody.

Becoming a father is an exciting time in every man's life. However, unmarried fathers can have very few rights until they are legally recognized as the father. Following the steps in this article will help protect your rights as a father, and allow you to be a part of your child's life.

Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 

To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:

  • Call 800-532-1275.
  • Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161.
  • Apply online at iowalegalaid.org
If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website iowabar.org.   A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.
As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice.
Last Review and Update: Apr 04, 2023
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