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  • Establishing paternity can give unmarried dads the assurance they need to be responsible fathers. Tweet This
  • "I have been a better dad," says one single dad, "I guess I needed to see the [paternity] test." Tweet This

I was never a Prince fan, although I admired his artistry and creativity. But it wasn’t until after his death in April that I thought much about him, mostly because of the suspense of who will or who won’t qualify as an heir to his estate, now estimated between $300 million and $1 billion in value. So far, 29 serious contenders have stepped forward with another nearly 700 wannabes. The dilemma coincides with research I’ve done pertaining to paternity, an integral part of the story.

“The key to our matter,” said attorney for Prince’s family members, David Crosby, “is, who is the genetic father” of Prince and his potential heirs.

Prince was not married at the time of his death and has no known living children. They would be first in line to inherit his fortune. He has one full sister and five half-siblings, and more claimants are expected to surface, as supposedly, it’s no secret that Prince’s father had a variety of relationships outside marriage, as perhaps Prince did too.

Prince’s biological father is John Lewis Nelson. Because he was married to Prince’s mother at Prince’s birth, John didn’t need to file for paternity to establish a legal connection to his son; it was automatically granted, as it would be for married fathers today.

And while Prince’s father did not have to think twice about filing for paternity at that time, other fathers did. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 208,700 “illegitimate babies” were born in 1958—babies that, along with Prince, cumulatively added 4,255,000 to the Baby Boomer generation.

Since then, “illegitimate births” have been redefined as “nonmarital births” and have grown from less than 5 percent of births in Prince’s era to 40.2 percent of births today. Consequently, more than 1.6 million corresponding unmarried birth fathers are presented each year with the decision to claim (or to not claim) paternity.

If I were an unmarried father today, I wouldn’t bank on my child becoming the next pop music legend, but I wouldn’t think twice about claiming paternity, if indeed I was the father, and establishing the tie that legally binds me to that heir. It’s the right thing to do—both for the child and the parents.

I had occasion to interview a number of nonmarital fathers for the Center of the American Experiment essay, “Where the Boys Are: The Unacknowledged Worlds of Nonmarital Fathers, which I wrote about on this blog. Whether or not a fortune was at stake, most of the young men I interviewed agreed that establishing paternity was the right thing to do.

“Establishing paternity was just the first of many legal proceedings as a single father,” lamented Brad. “I needed to establish paternity, or I would not have rights to see my daughter or be involved in decisions pertaining to her life. She had the right to know who her father was.”

Hospital personnel have routinely provided forms for birth certificate registration for 170 years. When parents are married, the names of both mother and father are written on the birth certificate, as the married father is assumed to be the legal father of his child. This confers his legal rights. In the case of unmarried parents, naming the father is optional. 

Establishing paternity is voluntary and relatively easy to do. “We had to sign the Recognition of Parentage (ROP),” explained Jake, another single father I interviewed for my essay. ROP is also known as the “Acknowledgment of Parentage” or AOP. While both the mother and father sign the document, in Minnesota, a father needs proof of identification, and signatures must be witnessed or notarized before the hospital processes the form with the state. “We put my name on the birth certificate as the biological dad,” Jake added. “The ROP made me the ‘legal dad’ too.”

“I never doubted that I was the father,” Jake continued. “But within two months, my parents urged me to have a paternity test. They were better able to look out over my life—to look into the future and project the meaning of having this baby. They thought I needed to know for sure if I was the dad and a DNA test would tell me.”

To determine paternity, blood type matching or DNA testing is often used. Jake chose to do the DNA test, which tends to be more conclusive with 99.9 percent accuracy. “Within the week, the test results came back and, yep, I was the father,” Jake told me. “My parents never said another word and have been good grandparents ever since. I have been a better dad too. I guess I needed to see the test.” Testing for paternity gave Jake the assurance that he was the biological father, which in turn encouraged his involvement with both the baby and its mother.

Paternity can be voluntarily acknowledged, as it was initially by Jake when he signed the ROP, or contested, as he chose to do when he opted for the DNA test. A mother might also request a paternity test when she seeks the identity of a baby’s father, sometimes weighing separate and closely-timed sexual encounters that may have conceived a baby. Paternity can also be resolved by court order.

"The child has a right to know who its father is," says one unmarried father about paternity testing. "It was my right too, to know I was the father."

Establishing paternity is the prerequisite for securing ongoing economic support from the noncustodial parent. Once paternity is established, a child gains legal rights and privileges, such as the right to inheritance, as well as the right to a father’s medical insurance and records, life insurance, social security or veteran’s benefits. This legal connection also provides the link to a father’s health history and family members, which is an important aspect in the case of Prince, whose various half-siblings are woven together somewhat loosely through the labyrinth associated with multi-family fertility. With luck, establishing paternity also constructs the family ties that lead to an ongoing relationship between a child and his or her father.

“Knowing for sure is worth it,” concluded one of the unmarried fathers in my study. “There’s a lot at stake…When you say you are the legal father, you are signing up for a lifetime. The child has a right to know who its father is; it was my right too, to know I was the father. This is really important because not all ‘alleged fathers’ are the true biological fathers.”

According to the American Association of Blood Banks (AABB), Jake’s parents weren’t out of line for recommending a paternity test. “Misappropriated paternity” or “non-paternity” does occur and varies by socio-economic group. The AABB, the primary source for DNA testing since 1947, puts the exclusion rate at nearly 25 percent, which means from a practical standpoint, approximately 95,000 of the 382,199 men tested for paternity by the AABB in 2010, for example, were proven not to be the fathers.

Not all misattributed paternities are deliberate, of course; some are unintentional and involved women who may have had sex with a variety of men and simply can’t figure out who the father is except by DNA testing. Other cases involve welfare and paternity fraud: a father’s name, whether or not he is the real father, must be provided as a prerequisite to receiving public assistance.

And in the case of Prince, having a connection to his real father is a prerequisite to participate in what turns out to be an enormous financial windfall and the legacy of a musical genius. But for the growing number of children born to unmarried parents across the U.S., paternity is about more than the possibility of financial gain—it’s about a greater likelihood of forming a lifelong and irreplaceable relationship with their biological fathers.

Rhonda Kruse Nordin, a Senior Fellow at the Center of the American Experiment, is a Twin Cities author, educator, and public speaker whose research-based offerings provide point-of-view trends and recommendations to strengthen families.