Fathers: Establishing Your Legal Rights Through Legitimation
A father is a necessary ingredient in any child’s life. To a male child, a father is the first point of reference to physical strength. To a female child, the father’s presence and involvement serves as a blueprint for her definition of love in the romantic realm. To society, the presence or absence of a father serves as a guidepost of whether a child can effectively navigate the world with a certain degree of strength, love, compassion and courage. As a Fathers’ Rights advocate, my goal is to seek active and meaningful involvement for my clients and their minor children.
Why Father's Rights?
As a female I am often asked why do you care about Fathers’ Rights? My answer is simple. I have a father who invested in the intangibles of my life.
My father taught me at a very early age that life is to be lived and we, as members of society, get to choose how we live. My parents never married but their decision not join in matrimony does not make me illegitimate. In fact, my intimate conversations with my father throughout my adolescence and teenage years legitimated my existence. The depth and breadth of my conversations with my father prepared me for the male dominated profession of which I am currently involved.
Therefore, I honor my father each day as I represent hurt and distraught dads. I understand there are men out there who want to be involved in their child’s life but for reasons beyond their control they have been eliminated from the parenting process.
An unwed father is the most vulnerable type of parent. An unwed father who has not established his legal rights to his child in Georgia has no legal duty except to pay child support. That’s right, you are merely a paycheck. You have no rights to visit or have custody of a child you conceived out of wedlock. Any failure to pay child support will subject you to potential jail time or constant appearances before the court system where you must prove you have consistently paid an amount sufficient to meet the basic needs of your child. You are then expected to continue to pay support without fail.
A Petition for Legitimation is the only legal instrument that provides potential relief to an unwed father. Legitimation occurs when the unwed father establishes his legal rights to his child enabling the child to inherit from the father and the father to inherit from the child. You can also receive visitation or some form of physical custody in a legitimation case.
There is a legal doctrine which can and will be examined in any legitimation action. The doctrine is more of an inquiry known as “opportunity interest." Before any court will grant a father legitimation the court will inquire into what acts, if any, the father took to be a meaningful part of the child’s life. The opportunity interest begins the moment the father learns the mother is pregnant and continues throughout the child’s life until 18 years of age.
Although knowledge of the pregnancy is a critical factor here, it is not the determining factor. As a father who seeks to legitimate a child, it is necessary to actively seek and engage in the parenting process as soon as reasonably possible. There are instances where you may learn of the mother’s pregnancy while the child is in utero. If possible, you should seize the opportunity to purchase items for the baby including clothing, formula, diapers, etc.
But what happens when the mother informs you of the pregnancy but ceases all communication and access to her? As soon as the baby is born, get involved. Buy necessary items for child rearing. Visit the baby as often as possible and take lots of pictures during your visits. Keep receipts of any and all purchases you have made. Most importantly, seek an attorney and file a Petition for Legitimation and Visitation/Custody.
Caldwell v. Meadows
In 2011, Georgia courts granted a father visitation and joint legal custody of a child he was not able to bond with or provide for until after its birth. In Caldwell v. Meadows (312 Ga.App. 70, 2011), the father provided no significant financial or emotional support during the mother’s pregnancy. The father did, however, make voluntary child support payments, visited the child a minimum of 22 times within the first two years of the child’s life and contributed to the child’s medical expenses.
The mother appealed the trial court’s decision arguing the father abandoned his opportunity interest because he failed to provide any emotional or financial support to her during her pregnancy. The appellate court disagreed with the mother finding that the father showed a clear intent to be involved in his child’s life following its birth. The court further stated there are factors which support finding an abandonment of one’s opportunity to legitimate. Some of those factors include a “biological father’s inaction during pregnancy and at birth, a delay in filing a legitimation petition, and lack of contact with the child."
In essence, you must display a willingness to be a deadbeat. When you are a concerned father who truly desires an extraordinary role in your child’s life, it is practically impossible to satisfy such low standards. Therefore, Caldwell case stands for the proposition that no matter the circumstance, no matter the situation or relationship of the parents, a father who is committed to have a relationship with his child despite barriers imposed by the mother will be granted relief in the form of legitimation and visitation.