What is paternity?

'Paternity' is the legal word for fatherhood. Establishing paternity can be important because it can affect the wellbeing of a child, as well as the legal rights and responsibilities of the parents, for example:

  • A father’s entitlement to day-to-day care of, or access to, a child
  • A mother’s entitlement to receive the Sole Parent Support benefit from Work and Income
  • A father’s responsibility for paying Child Support
  • A child’s right to New Zealand citizenship

What can I do if my child's father refuses to have his name on the birth certificate?

If the child’s father does not believe they are the child’s father (or just doesn’t want to own up to it), you can apply to the Family Court for a paternity order. It’s worth getting legal advice before you proceed with this, for example from a Community Law Centre.

The Family Court can make a decision on the matter (see How does the Court determine the paternity of a child?). It may include getting a 'parentage' (paternity) test, which checks the DNA of the father and the child.

If the Court determines that the alleged father is the father of a child, then you can apply for child support from him or the Sole Parent Support benefit (or in some cases, both).

How is paternity normally established?

A man is normally presumed to be the father of a child if:

  • he is named on the child’s birth certificate as the father of the child or 
  • he  was married to the child’s mother at the time of the birth, or if the child was born within 10 months of the marriage ending or
  • he signs an Acknowledgment of Paternity, which is also signed by the mother and is witnessed by a lawyer or
  • a Court makes a declaration that he is the father of a child

More information is in this Ministry of Justice page on Paternity.

What is a paternity order?

A paternity order is a Court declaration establishing who the father of a child is, when there is a dispute about it. The Family Court usually deals with paternity cases, although the High Court also has the power to make this decision (e.g. in cases dealing with the right to inherit property). A paternity order generally must be made within six years of the child’s birth, though there are some exceptions. More about this is on the Ministry of Justice website.

Why do I need to apply for a paternity order in order to get my benefit?

If you are applying for the Sole Parent Support benefit from Work and Income, then your child’s father must be named on the birth certificate, as he is obliged to contribute towards the support of your child. If the father is not named on the child’s birth certificate then your benefit may be reduced (there are exceptions e.g. if you are concerned about the safety of you or your child).

How do I apply for a paternity order?

A woman can only apply for a paternity order against a man who: 
  • is not (and never was) married to (nor in a civil union with) the child’s mother; or 
  • was in a marriage or civil union with the child’s mother, but the relationship was dissolved before the child was conceived.

This is because if they were married or in a civil union around the time of the child’s birth, he is assumed to be the father (unless he gets a paternity declaration which states that he is not the father).

Applying for a paternity order is a complicated process. If you are making an application, you should seek legal assistance e.g. from a Community Law Centre. Legal aid may be available for both parties.

Usually, you have to apply for a paternity order before the child is six years old, but you might be able to apply after this time if:

  • the man admits he is the child’s father, or 
  • he lived with you within a two year period before you make an application, or
  • he  contributed to your child’s upbringing within the two years before you make the applicaton

Application forms for a paternity order are available on the Family Court website. 

What is the difference between a paternity order and a declaration of paternity?

Normally only the mother (or someone acting on the mother’s behalf) can apply for a paternity order, and she would do so for the purposes of child support and applying for a benefit.

If a man wishes to prove or disprove paternity in Court he must do so by applying for a declaration of paternity.

A declaration of paternity is an official statement made by the Family Court that a man is the father of a child (the Court can also make a declaration that a man is not a child’s father), for the purpose of determining rights to inheritance. An application can be made by mother, father or child. More about this is on the Community Law website.

How does the Court determine the paternity of a child?

The Court will consider:
  • the history of the mother’s relationship with the alleged father
  • the likely date of conception
  • whether or not the mother had other sexual partners around the time of the baby’s conception
  • whether the alleged father admits to having had sex with the mother
  • DNA testing

To help establish paternity, the Court might order parentage (paternity) tests.

What is a parentage test?

Parentage (or paternity) tests can involve taking DNA samples from inside the mouth or blood samples, from the man, the child, and the child’s mother. The DNA collected from the samples will be compared to see whether there is a match.

Both the mother and the alleged father have the right to request a parentage test, and DNA testing is available from medical laboratories around the country. It can cost around a thousand dollars.

If a parentage test has been ordered by the Court, then usually the costs of DNA testing are shared between the mother and the alleged father. If paternity is established, the mother can get her lawyer to argue for the full cost to be paid by the father. 

Legal aid may be available to help cover the costs of DNA testing.

Can I be forced to give a DNA sample in a paternity case?

You can refuse to have the test, however the Court may take your refusal into account when they decide on the final outcome. The Court can make a paternity order even if the test is not done, if other evidence suggests that you are likely to be the father.

What rights do I have if a woman is pregnant with my child and I want her to have a termination?

This is a very difficult situation. Even though you may not want the child you will still have responsibilities as the father if and when the child is born. You can talk to the mother-to-be and explain your position, but no-one can be forced to have an abortion at any age. She doesn’t have to get consent from her parents or the father of her child, regardless of her age.

Once the child is born, as the father you have a say in how the child is brought up.

If you and the mother were in a relationship around the time of the baby’s conception, she will need your consent if she wishes to adopt out the baby.

For more advice, contact your local Citizens Advice Bureau.