The birth of a baby is one of the happiest days in parents’ lives. But if the child’s mother and father are not married, it can cloud the situation legally. In the case of married parents, the husband automatically is considered to be the father of a child born during the marriage. However, children of unmarried parents have no legal father unless paternity is established.

With out-of-wedlock births rising to 40 percent in recent years, local attorneys are undertaking an increasing load of paternity cases. “More and more people are not getting married, but still having kids,” says Kirk Stange of Stange Law Firm.

Local attorneys agree that establishing paternity is an important step in the well-being of children and their parents. Children can benefit medically, financially and emotionally, Stange notes, from gaining health insurance and child support to developing meaningful relationships with their fathers. “It allows fathers to be an equal decision-maker in kids’ lives.” The father will have a say in major life issues, Stange continues, such as where the child will reside and his or her medical care, education and religion.

A man must take specific steps in order to establish himself as the legal father of his child. “Dads really do need to know what they can do to be active parts in kids’ lives,” Stange says. And Craig Kallen of Kallen Law Firm notes that the father’s name on his child’s birth certificate does not equal legal rights.

Richard Eisen of Growe Eisen Karlen outlines the necessary steps of a typical paternity case for clients:

• Acquire an attorney experienced in the specific area of paternity cases.

• File a paternity case in the circuit or family court where the mother and child or father resides.

• Participate in a paternity test if it is in question.

• Establish custody rights and a parenting plan.

Much like divorce cases, paternity cases can last three to four months if parents reach a compromise, or take up to a year or more if contested, Eisen adds.

The good news is paternity cases typically result in joint legal custody, Kallen says. “In most cases, there is still a presumption that is in best interest of the child.” And the even better news, Kallen continues, is that St. Louis-area courts are incredibly receptive to dads wanting frequent time with their kids. “My advice is to go ahead and file as soon as a child is born—it is good for both parents and the children. Dads filing paternity cases these days are in really good shape, and they are getting lot of time with their kids.”

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