Putative Fathers

In the decades since 1960, out-of-wedlock births have increased dramatically. While much research on childbearing trends and the characteristics of unwed mothers exists, very little is known about putative fathers, the alleged or reputed father of a child born out-of-wedlock. However, there is an expanding population of putative fathers who wish to play a role in their children's upbringing. Consequently, their legal rights have become increasingly important.

Putative fathers have had fewer rights with regard to their children than either unwed mothers or married parents. Over the past several decades, putative fathers have used the Fourteenth Amendment to challenge the termination of their parental rights when the birth mother relinquishes their child for adoption. Nevertheless, States have almost complete discretion to determine the rights a putative father must receive at proceedings to terminate parental rights or adoption proceedings.

Constitutional Rights
The U.S. Supreme Court has protected a putative father's right to constitutional protection of his parental rights when he has established a substantial relationship with his child. The Court defined a substantial relationship as the existence of a biological link between the child and putative father, and the father's commitment to the responsibilities of parenthood by participating in the child's upbringing.1

Several critical concerns, however, have been unresolved by the Court. For instance, when an infant is placed for adoption at birth, the putative father can have no more than a biological link to his child; he never received an opportunity to develop a substantial relationship with his child. The Court has yet to rule on what this putative father must do to protect his parental rights. Consequently, there is a lack of uniformity among States as to the level of protection available to unwed fathers.2

Putative Father Registries
In almost all jurisdictions, putative fathers are entitled to notice of proceedings to terminate parental rights or adoption proceedings. States generally require a putative father to register on the putative father registry or acknowledge paternity within a certain time frame in order to receive notice of such proceedings.3 Approximately4 21 States have statutes authorizing the establishment of putative father registries. Several States, however, only mandate by law that a putative father file a notice of his paternity claim within a certain period of time. Failure to register or file may preclude the right to notice of termination or adoption proceedings.

Information Included in Registries
States differ in the information they maintain in their registries. Among the information required by the various States is:

  • Name, address, social security number and date of birth of putative father and birth mother
  • Name and address of any person adjudicated by a court to be the father
  • Child's name and date of birth or expected month and year of birth
  • Registration date
  • Other information deemed necessary.

Revocation of and Access to Information
Approximately 15 States allow putative fathers to revoke a notice of intent to claim paternity.5 Of these States, many require that the putative father submit a signed, notarized written statement. While some States allow revocation of information at anytime, revocation is effective only after the child's birth in some jurisdictions.

Access to information maintained in registries also varies from State to State. Many jurisdictions permit certain persons access to registry records. In general, these are people with a direct interest in a case. Typically, persons entitled to access include:

  • Birth mothers
  • Courts
  • Attorneys
  • Licensed adoption agencies
  • Prospective adoptive parents
  • Any other person upon a court order for good cause shown.

1 Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645 (1972); Quilloin v. Walcott, 434 U.S. 246 (1978); Caban v. Mohammed, 441 U.S. 380 (1979); Lehr v. Robertson, 463 U.S. 248 (1983).
2 This summary is limited to a putative father's right to notice of adoption or termination proceedings when the child is relinquished for adoption at birth or shortly thereafter.
3 Situations in which the birth mother and putative father reside in different States may be complicated by the variability in State adoption law regarding putative father registration or acknowledgement.
4 The word approximately is used to stress the fact that statutes are constantly being revised and updated.
5 This summary does not include statutes addressing voluntary declaration of paternity requirements.

Statutes-At-A-Glance are products summarizing State adoption laws prepared by the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse. The Clearinghouse is a service of the Children's Bureau, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Statutes-At-A-Glance listings summarize specific sections of each State's code. While every attempt has been made to be as complete as possible, additional information on these topics may be in other sections of a State's code as well as in agency regulations, case law, and informal practices and procedures. Readers interested in interpretation of specific statutory provisions within an individual jurisdiction should consult with professionals within the State familiar with the statutes' implementation.

Resource: National Adoption Information Clearinghouse

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