Many times, unmarried fathers are faced with a difficult decision within hours of the birth of their child—Should I sign the Affidavit of Parentage? In Michigan, this document is given to unmarried couples in the hospital (typically in a packet of other, similar documents) with little to no explanation on what it is or the potential repercussions of signing it.
A careful examination of an Affidavit of Parentage indicates that several important rights are given up when the document is signed. First, the right to a blood or other genetic test to determine the biological father of the child. Second, the right to court appointed representation in a matter to determine the biological father of the child. Third, fathers give up the right to a trial to determine whether they are in fact, the biological father of the child. Unfortunately, many men sign this document without knowing that they are giving up these important rights.
Beyond waiving their rights to determine who the biological father of the child is, an Affidavit of Parentage also contains another potentially precarious statement: “The mother has initial custody of the child, without prejudice to the determination of either parent’s custodial rights….” What this means, is that upon the signing and filing of the document with the state, the mother of the child is presumed to have sole legal and sole physical custody.
Sadly, all too often we see situations in which parents separate shortly after the birth of their child. In many of these cases, the mother uses the Affidavit of Parentage as a weapon and withholds the child(ren) from the father. When an Affidavit of Parentage is the only legal document in place, the mother’s actions are proper. In these cases, a parent has to petition a court in order to change the default presumption of sole legal and sole physical custody being awarded to the mother. While hiring a skilled attorney can help in this process, it still takes time to work though the legal system, and during this time a parent may be separated from their child for an extended period.
Accordingly, before signing any legal document, it is best to be fully informed on such document’s meaning. This rule clearly holds true when signing documents following the birth of a child. While the first precious moments with a new child can never be matched, father’s should be mindful to not inadvertently sign away their ability to see their child in the near future.