Paternity Uncertainty: A Look at Rescissions and the Role of Doubt in Parents’ Paternity Decisions

CFRP Report | R.008.0815

August 2015  

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Approximately two out of five children in Texas are born to unmarried parents. Because children of unmarried parents have no legally recognized father until paternity is established, parents are encouraged to sign an Acknowledgment of Paternity (AOP) form in the hospital at the time of a child’s birth. In Texas, about three-quarters of unmarried parents establish paternity this way. Although signing the AOP is a routine administrative process, it can be a deeply symbolic act, affirming the connection between father and child. It also has significant, long-lasting implications. Research shows that fathers who voluntarily sign the AOP in the hospital are more likely to be involved and supportive, both of which are associated with a host of positive child outcomes.1

Moreover, paternity establishment formalizes the legal rights and responsibilities of fatherhood. For example, a father who establishes paternity in the hospital gains the right to include his name on the child’s birth certificate—a tangible and immediate benefit to his decision to sign the AOP. Through the legal father, the child may also become eligible for a wide range of paternal benefits, including health insurance, life insurance, social security, veteran’s benefits, and inheritance. The AOP further guarantees that the child can access paternal genetic history and determine any risk for inherited health defects. The establishment of paternity is also a necessary precondition for formal child support and the establishment of legal visitation orders. Finally, as one of five federal performance measures, the rate of paternity establishment for nonmarital births has become a critical metric for states seeking federal incentive funds.

Given the lasting consequences of paternity establishment for children and their families, it is critical that this legal determination accurately reflects the biological relationship between father and child. Accordingly, the Texas Family Code not only outlines procedures for administering the AOP, but also provides means through which parents can rescind the AOP. In 2011, the state legislature enacted reforms that simplified paternity rescission procedures, making it easier for couples who had signed an AOP to retract that acknowledgment. Prior to these changes, anyone wishing to rescind paternity establishment was required to commence a proceeding in court. By contrast, parents who sign an AOP today retain the legal right—within a limited timeframe—to rescind that acknowledgment through an administrative process similar to the AOP procedure.

This report is divided into two parts. The first examines paternity rescission in Texas in light of the 2011 reforms. The second takes a closer look at unmarried parents in Texas who harbor doubts about the child’s paternity but sign an AOP nevertheless, thereby setting themselves up for a potential rescission in the future. Taken as a whole, this report investigates the topic of paternity establishment under imperfect or uncertain circumstances. It is part of a series of reports produced by the Texas Child and Family Research Partnership (CFRP) for the Child Support Division of the Texas Office of the Attorney General (OAG). The OAG requested that CFRP provide recommendations regarding ways to expand paternity education, increase or sustain federal performance of paternity measures, and reduce the incidence of rescissions of Paternity Uncertainty August 2015 Page 5 of 38 paternity establishments. Ultimately, the findings in this report aim to promote higher and more accurate levels of paternity establishment among unmarried fathers.

To assess the impact of the 2011 Texas Family Code reforms, CFRP examined roughly 12 years’ worth of statewide data on paternity rescission collected by the Department of State Health Services’ Vital Statistics Unit (VSU) and the Texas Office of the Attorney General. Although the overall rate of paternity rescission remains extremely low, these data show that the rate has increased since the reforms went into effect in September of 2011, suggesting the regulatory changes enacted that year succeeded in eliminating barriers to rescission by simplifying the process. Data also indicate that the vast majority of children with rescinding fathers do not have paternity voluntarily established again, though a small portion of children acquires a new AOP from a different father in the months following the rescission. Even without a subsequent AOP, however, children may be assigned legal paternity through other means, such as adjudication. In fact, a substantial portion of children with rescinding fathers is affiliated with an OAG case in which the rescinding father is currently listed as the child’s “primary” father, implying that in these instances the rescission may have been ultimately unsuccessful in terminating the legal relationship between father and child.

To better understand parents’ paternity decisions, including circumstances that may precipitate a rescission, CFRP also analyzed survey data from a sample of approximately 800 Texas mothers who had recently given birth outside of marriage. Because the decision to rescind paternity can only follow the decision to voluntarily establish it, CFRP examined parents’ reasons for voluntarily signing the AOP, especially in cases of uncertain paternity. A range of relationship indicators is also presented in an effort to contextualize this small, but important, group of fathers who sign the AOP despite misgivings about their genetic tie to the child.

Findings show that fathers who establish paternity in the hospital tend to be more engaged with the family than those who do not, regardless of whether they doubt paternity. Moreover, mothers and children associated with AOP-signing fathers tend to have fewer health problems, even when fathers are unsure if the child is theirs. Together, these outcomes suggest that fathers’ symbolic commitment to the fatherhood role may be more important than their doubts about paternity when it comes to the lived experience of the family. Nevertheless, behind the scenes, fathers who sign the AOP despite remaining skeptical of the child’s paternity appear to cause mothers some degree of strife. Relationship instability and family violence are particular concerns, and mothers voice a clear unease about the fathers’ prospects for sticking around. As the group most intuitively primed for rescission, fathers who doubt paternity may benefit from expanded outreach about the availability of DNA testing. Wider use of DNA testing would likely improve the accuracy of paternity establishment and reduce rates of rescission. 

Click here to read the full report.

1 ​Mincy, R., Garfinkel, I., & Nepomnyaschy, L. (2005). In-hospital paternity establishment and father involvement in fragile families. Journal of Marriage & Family, 67, 611–626; Cabrera, N. J., Shannon, J. D., & Tamis-LeMonda, C. (2007). Fathers’ influence on their children’s cognitive and emotional development: From toddlers to pre-k. Applied Development Science, 11, 208–213; Amato, P. R., & Gilbreth, J. G. (1999). Nonresident fathers and children’s well-being: A meta-analysis. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61, 557–573.

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