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What Is a Putative Father?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 22, 2024
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A putative father is a man believed to be the father of a child, lacking any evidence to the contrary, but who has not asserted parental rights. Rights of putative fathers vary under the law but are often scant. Men who want more rights will need to file in court to establish their identity as the father of the child in question. Some regions maintain putative father databases, registries that allow men to acknowledge paternity.

The putative father does not have a legal relationship with the mother, such as a marriage that would automatically generate parental rights. The child is illegitimate either because it was born out of wedlock, or because the putative father is asserting parental rights over a child as a result of an extramarital affair. In many regions, if putative fathers want parental rights, they will need to demonstrate a level of involvement with the child such as committing to providing care and support.

In cases where mothers want to put their children up for adoption, the government may move to terminate the rights of the putative father, sometimes without any notice or opportunity for a hearing, if the law allows this. Men who have concerns about their parental rights should research the law carefully and determine if they need to take additional steps. Simply joining a putative father registry is usually not enough. The man will also need to go to court to be formally recognized as the father.

Paternity can be a hotly contested topic, especially in a situation where an adoption or similar event is involved. Testing is available to determine the identity of a child's genetic father, but this can be expensive and may not be an option. In a court hearing, a man can put forward supporting evidence to show that he is the father, but because this is a civil matter, if he cannot afford court costs, he may not be able to take any legal action to assert his parental rights. The courts do not guarantee representation to litigants who cannot afford it in civil cases, only in criminal matters.

Laws about paternity vary considerably by nation. In a situation where the identity of a father might be in question or where someone the mother is not close to could assert an identity as a putative father, it can be a good idea to consult an attorney. The lawyer can provide advice about how to proceed after discussing the desired outcome with the parties involved. For example, a mother who wants to terminate a putative father's parental rights to put a child up for adoption or to allow her partner to adopt the child would need to discuss the matter with the court and a child services agency.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By AnswerMan — On Feb 16, 2014

@Cageybird, I don't believe a lot of putative fathers expect outsiders like us to be very sympathetic. They know the circumstances surrounding the child's existence are complicated. I think what many of them want is legal recognition, in case their child needs to know the family's medical history or wants to develop a relationship with his or her biological father as an adult.

But I can also see where a putative father might cause more disruptions in a bonded family than strictly necessary. If the assumed father knows the putative father, for example, then things could go bad for everyone involved.

By Cageybird — On Feb 15, 2014

I don't know where I fall as far as putative fathers are concerned. I'd hate for a decent man to be denied access to his offspring because of circumstances beyond his control. However, many unmarried fathers know that they've had sexual relations with the mother, and they should have known that pregnancy could be a result. I could see it as a one-night stand or infidelity gone wrong. If that's the situation, I don't have as much sympathy for the putative father.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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