Establishing Legal Fatherhood (Paternity)

It is important for your baby to know who his or her parents are. In addition, establishing a legal father for your child ensures both your child's rights and your rights as parents.

Legal Fatherhood Protects your Baby's Rights

If you establish legal fatherhood, your child:

  • Will know who his or her father is
  • Will be able to receive financial support from both parents until he or she becomes an adult
  • Will have rights to his or her father's social security, veterans' benefits, pension, and inheritance if something should happen
  • Will have the rights to tribal enrollment if Native American
  • Will have access to the father's family health history. This is important because conditions such as diabetes, cancer, heart problems, and sickle cell run in families
  • May be enrolled in his or her father's health insurance plan

Legal Fatherhood Protects the Father's Rights

Legal fatherhood gives the father the right to:

  • Have his name on the child's birth certificate
  • Have his parental rights considered before his baby can be placed for adoption
  • Ask the court for legal custody and placement of his child

Genetic Testing

If the mother or man is not sure who the father is, they should have genetic testing done. 

Genetic tests can be done either by a swab test or a blood test. Most places do the swab test. For the swab test, cotton swabs are rubbed inside the mouth to obtain cell samples. In both types of testing, samples are taken from the man, the mother and the child. The results from these tests will determine the probability of a specific man being the father. If you are not sure if a man is the father, you should ask for genetic testing.

Local child support agencies offer genetic testing at a reduced cost. If the parents were not married at the time of the child's birth, legal fatherhood must be decided before a court will order child support. If a child was born when the mother was married, her husband is the legal father.

A court uses the test results to rule on paternity when the man or the mother are not sure or do not agree on the paternity of the child. If the test shows a 99% or greater probability of fatherhood, the man will be the legal father under Wisconsin law. The man has a right to object to the test results in court.

Who pays for the genetic tests?

  • The child support agency pays for the tests until paternity is established.
  • If the tests show the man is the father, he and/or the mother may be ordered to pay for the tests.
  • If the tests show that the man is not the father, he will not be charged for the tests.

More information about fees for genetic testing

Establish Legal Paternity

In Wisconsin, there are 4 ways to establish legal fatherhood:

  • Voluntary Paternity Acknowledgment
  • Court Ruling
  • Conclusive Paternity Determination Based on Genetic Test Results
  • Acknowledgment of Marital Child

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Voluntary Paternity Acknowledgment (VPA)

If both the mother and the man are 18 or older and are sure that the man is the father, the easiest way to establish paternity is with the Voluntary Paternity Acknowledgment form. The form may be filed at any time after the baby is born. To ensure the child's rights, it is best to file the form soon after the child is born.

If either parent wants genetic testing, the parents should not sign the form until they receive the test results. Parents may ask their local child support agency for genetic tests.

About the Voluntary Paternity Acknowledgment (VPA) form

Before signing the form, make sure you understand the form's meaning.

  • The VPA form is a legal document and legally establishes paternity of your child.
  • This means the court may order support for the baby without having a court hearing to prove who the father is.
  • Child support will continue until the baby becomes an adult.
  • If you have questions or are unsure if signing the form is the best idea, do not sign the form until you speak to one of the following:
    1. The person who gave you the form;
    2. Your local child support agency;
    3. A counselor, or an attorney; or
    4. Call the Paternity Acknowledgment Answer Line at 1-888-643-7284.

What the VPA form does NOT do:

  • Completing the form does not create a child support order. However, it does allow the court to order support if necessary.
  • The form does not give the father legal custody or placement. It does give the right for the father to ask the court for custody or visitation.

Where to Get the Voluntary Paternity Acknowledgment form

  • At the hospital when your baby is born.
    All hospitals in Wisconsin have this form and will offer it to new parents.
  • From your midwife when your baby is born.
  • From your local child support agency.
  • At your local Register of Deeds Office or the state Vital Records Office.

If you change your mind after signing the form

  • You can withdraw the VPA form if a court has not yet ruled on a family matter involving the father, mother, and child.
  • Either the mother or the father can mail a completed Request to Withdraw Voluntary Paternity Acknowledgment form to the state Office of Vital Records.
  • The withdrawal form must be filed within 60 days of filing the original VPA form.
  • The withdrawal form is available at the same places listed above where you can get the VPA form.
  • If you change your mind after 60 days, or after a court has ruled on paternity, you must ask the court to change the child's paternity.

Court Hearing

If a man is named as the possible father and does not agree, or if a man states that he is the father of a child and the mother doesn't agree, a court hearing will be scheduled. The court will make a decision about paternity. Both the man and the mother will be notified of the hearing and both should attend.

At the hearing, the man's rights and responsibilities will be explained to him. If he wants genetic testing, he should ask the court for genetic tests.

If the man does not appear at the court hearing, the court may still enter a default ruling. The court may name the father even if he is not at the hearing.

Conclusive Paternity Determination Based on Genetic Test Results

A man can be conclusively determined to be a child's father if all the conditions are met:

  • Genetic tests are performed with respect to the child, child's mother, and the alleged father in response to an administrative subpoena issued by the county child support agency requiring the parties to submit to the tests;
  • Test results show that the man is not excluded as the father and that the statistical probability of paternity is 99% or higher;
  • Both the mother and father are at least 18 years old; and
  • There is no other paternity presumption

Acknowledgment of a Marital Child

  • If the mother and the father get married after their child is born, the parents may sign an Acknowledgment of Marital Child form to establish paternity.
  • Parents can get this form at their local child support agency or from the state Vital Records Office. Both parents should sign the form in front of a notary and mail it to the state Office of Vital Records.

Resources for Birth Hospitals & Midwives

Ordering and Printing Paternity Materials

  • VPA Forms - Authorized agencies may order Paternity forms from the State Vital Records Office. (See contact information tab below)
  • DVDs - Authorized agencies who need copies of the VPA Training DVD for staff or the Power of Two DVD for parents should contact the Bureau of Child Support, Voluntary Paternity Acknowledgment Coordintor. (See contact information tab below)

Child Support Publications

Wisconsin child support booklets and brochures describing paternity, voluntary paternity acknowledgment, and child support services for mothers and fathers are available in English, Spanish and Hmong.

To order child support publications, visit the Ordering Child Support Publications page. Publications can be printed from this page as well.

Contact Information - VPA

Voluntary Paternity Acknowledgment Coordinator

State Vital Records Office

Questions Parents ask about Paternity Establishment

What if the man or the mother is not sure who the father is?

If the man or the mother is not sure, they should NOT sign a Voluntary Paternity Acknowledgment form. Once the form is filed, it has the same effect as a court ruling. The man will be considered the legal father, and a court can order the man to pay child support.

If no legal process has been started, the man and the mother should contact the local child support agency and ask for genetic tests. Child support agencies offer genetic testing at a reduced price.

If a legal process has been started, the man and the mother should appear at the hearing at the scheduled time. During the legal process, the child support agency or the court will order genetic tests.

If a man believes he is the father, what should he do?

It is important to legally establish fatherhood. If the mother does not agree, the man can go to court to establish paternity. The man's local child support agency may be able to help with this. By establishing legal fatherhood, the father's rights and the child's rights are protected.

A father can build a positive relationship with his child even if he is not in a relationship with the mother.

When can paternity be established?

Paternity can be established any time after the child is born. However, a court action to establish paternity must occur before the child's 19th birthday. It is best to determine paternity as soon as possible after the birth of the child.

Will the man or the mother need a lawyer?

The child support agency's lawyer may bring a court action to establish legal fatherhood. However, the child support attorney does NOT represent either parent.

If a man is named as a possible father, he might want to hire a lawyer. If he is under 18 and named as a possible father, the court will appoint a lawyer for him unless he has his own.

Will the father have to pay child support?

If a man is found to be the father, he will be expected to support his child.

What does paternity have to do with the W-2 and BadgerCare Plus programs?

When a child or the mother receives benefits from the W-2, BadgerCare Plus, or SSI Caretaker Supplement program, the state requires that the local child support agency establish legal fatherhood and get a child support order. The mother will be asked to cooperate with the child support agency. This means the mother must give information about the potential father to the child support agency and take genetic tests, if necessary.