It’s a beautiful Saturday during football season. Just as your favorite Pac 10 teams are about to begin the 2nd half, you hear a knock on your apartment’s front door. You open it and a man you’ve never seen before asks, “Is your name John Jones?” You answer that you are Mr. Jones. The man hands you a sheaf of papers and says, “This is a Summons and Petition to Establish Parental Relationship. Have a nice weekend!”
You suddenly are returned to a seemingly blissful period time a few years back, when you and one of the winsome coeds in your senior economics class had a short-lived affair just before college graduation. Only now your feelings about those several weeks are clouded with fear and bewilderment about what these papers mean in regard to possible changes in your future. The last thing you knew was that your former girlfriend returned to her home in the Midwest. You went on with your life and assumed that so had she. Instead, you now see that she became pregnant and is claiming you are the father of her child.
The process server could have just as easily handed you a set of documents entitled “Summons and Complaint or Supplemental Complaint Regarding Parental Obligations.” These are similar forms issued by the local child support enforcement agency for your county in California. The role of local and state government in establishing the parenthood of a child and securing financial support for her/him has grown exponentially in recent decades. So it is not unusual for single mothers (and fathers … but that discussion awaits a later article) to seek the aid of the closest child and family support agency to find and bring the father to court.
Regardless of whether you are sued by the mother as an individual or by the county as the assignee (where the mother has applied for and received county and/or state welfare benefits) or enforcer of the support order already established by the mother, most people who receive such pleadings have no experience dealing with them. The questions cascade through your mind, “Am I a father? Do I have child? Is this a good or bad thing?” Soon, all you can think is, “What do I do next, what can I expect, what obligations might I incur, and what are my rights?”
First, read the papers carefully. Make sure they are directed specifically to you, that you had an intimate relationship with the alleged mother, and that you could potentially be the child’s father.
Second, immediately consult with a qualified attorney. By law, you have just 30 days to respond. It is very important for you to meet with a lawyer having significant experience in the field of family law. Otherwise, you will likely only hear generalized information, of little real use in helping determine the best legal course to follow. If the paperwork came from a local child support enforcement bureau, you also should speak with a family law attorney who has substantial background litigating in that venue. There are certain procedural and substantive aspects of that arena which can complicate your case if they are not effectively addressed.
Within 30 days, you must file and serve a Response or Answer, either denying all material allegations of the Petition or Complaint, or admitting some and denying some where appropriate. Often, the mother will have prepared a Request for Order (“RFO”) for temporary child support, medical insurance, and attorney’s fees. She usually has the process server deliver these at the same time as the Summons and Petition. The local support agency will draft a Notice of Motion (“motion”) for the same relief (minus the attorney’s fees). However, they often wait until the father answers before serving the motion.
At any rate, within a few weeks of being served, you will need to file with the court and serve on the mother (or child support agency) some kind of responsive papers. Frequently, reply papers, further bolstering the claims for relief, follow receipt of your opposition. Regardless, unless you work out a stipulation (settlement agreement) with the mother or government bureau, you will have to go to court within a month or so of being served.
You have the right to ask for genetic testing if you have any doubt as to your being the child’s father. The court has the discretion to allocate the costs of such testing. Assuming the tests show that you are the father, two basic roads are open to you. One, you may elect to simply provide financial support to the child. Your financial responsibility to your child is not contingent on your intending to parent the child or the integrity of the mother. If you had sexual relations with the mother in the State of California, you are subject to unavoidable monetary duties to support any child resulting therefrom. If that is your choice – to simply pay for the child’s needs – a monthly basic child support amount will be calculated based on your after-tax income and the mother’s. Other expenses, such as child care to allow the mother to work or attend work-related school or other education, can be added to the basic support figure.
There are multiple programs used by California family law professionals to arrive at this amount including Dissomaster, Support Tax, Xspouse, etc. Your attorney should have one of these programs installed on his/her office system. Often, your local courthouse will have it available through the Family Law Facilitator’s office or in one of the family law departments. You may also be ordered to pay a portion of the mother’s legal fees if your income is significantly greater than hers.
Your other choice is to have a full parental role in your child’s life. In that regard, your response to the legal actions taken by the mother and/or child support enforcement department will include a prayer for child custody or visitation. Along with the emotional benefits from being a full father to your son or daughter, there are financial effects. Sometimes your wish to become an active part of your child’s world will be met with resistance by the mother. This will likely increase the expense of the litigation. However, any increased cost is usually mitigated by the supreme value of being a parent. Whether planned or not, parenthood is probably the most important and fulfilling experience a person can have.