If a woman is not married when she has a baby, the father is not legally recognized as the parent. A court order establishing parentage creates that legal recognition. When a child is born to married parents, the law recognizes both of them as the legal parents.
The law assumes that the birth mother is a child's legal parent. If the birth mother is married, the law assumes that her spouse is the child's legal parent as well. If she is not married, the other parent needs a legal order to establish parentage. That's true even if the mother and her partner are living together. And it's true even if the other claimed parent's name is on the birth certificate.
Under Vermont law, you can establish parentage until a child is 21 (or later in some cases).
There are two ways to establish parentage if you are not the child's legally recognized parent or you want to establish who the father is legally: (1) voluntary acknowledgment of parentage or (2) a parentage case in court. This section covers the reasons for establishing parentage, the voluntary acknowledgment of parentage process, and the court process for establishing parentage.
If the law does not recognize you as the child's legal parent:
- The child may not have access to health insurance through your employer, union, or military service.
- The child may not be entitled to financial support from you, or contact with you.
- If you die, the child may not qualify for many benefits. These include social security, pension, inheritance rights, veterans' benefits, and life insurance.
- You may not be entitled to contact with the child or a relationship with the child if the child's legally recognized parent denies you access.
If both parents agree that they are the parents of a child, they may sign a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage form. This form is a legally binding document. Both the legally recognized parent and the other parent must sign it. The Voluntary Acknowledgment of Parentage form is available online, at hospitals and birthing centers, at Office of Child Support (OCS) offices, and at the courts.
By signing the document, both parents swear that they are the child's parents. Signing the acknowledgment means that either parent may seek parental rights and responsibilities or ask for parent–child contact. Both parents also have an obligation to support the child financially.
You must file your voluntary acknowledgment with the Department of Health at the address listed on the form. If you do not, it won't be effective. You can rescind (withdraw) your voluntary acknowledgment of parentage within 60 days if there has been no court order.
If you file your form with the Department of Health within six months of the child's birth, your name will be added to the birth certificate. After six months you can only get on the birth certificate by order of the probate division.
If you don't live with the other parent, you may have to go to court for an order setting parental rights and responsibilities and rules for parent–child contact (select Parent-Child Contact here). You may also have to go to court for a child support order.
The Office of Child Support helps people establish legal parentage. For more information about voluntary acknowledgment of parentage, contact the Office of Child Support.
Completing the Complaint and Other Forms
Office of Child Support (OCS) as filer
Either the mother or the father, or both, may ask for help in preparing and filing a parentage case. If you have assigned your right to support to the state because you are receiving public assistance, OCS will work with you to file the appropriate documents with the court to start a parentage proceeding. After the documents are filed with the court, the court generally schedules a case manager conference and serves the other party with all the documents including the notice of conference. See the Case Management section (select Case Management here) for information about what to expect at a case manager conference.
Parent as filer
If you are filing a parentage action on your own, you will need to file the following:
- Information sheet
- Summons and Complaint for Parentage
- Copy of the Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage form if one was signed
- Income and Expense Affidavit
- Filing fee (select Family Division Fees here)
You can get the court forms you need and fill them out by hand. You can also complete the forms online and print them out when you are done. If you need help getting paper forms, you can call or go to your local family court.
The Income and Expense Affidavit takes some time to complete. It’s important to fill it out accurately. You and the other parent must each fill out your own affidavit. There are two ways you can fill out the Income and Expense Affidavit:
- You can get the form online and fill it out by hand. You can also complete the form online and print it out when you are done. You can find more instructions for filling out the financial affidavit here.
- You can ask the court staff for a paper version of the form.
If you are afraid for your safety, you can file a motion asking the court to keep your address confidential from the other parent:
Your motion must be accompanied by an affidavit describing the facts or events that support your request.
Filing and Serving the Forms
Filing means giving the completed forms to the court. Serving means delivering a copy of the completed forms to the other parent. You have to do both before your case can move forward.
If the Office of Child Support (OCS) files the paperwork, you don't have to serve or file. If OCS is not involved in your case, you can take or mail your completed forms to the family division of the Superior Court in the county where you or the other party lives.
You will be required to pay a filing fee. If you receive public assistance, are on a fixed income, or have a low-paying job, you can ask the court to waive the filing fee by filling out an application. This is called an Application to Waive Filing Fees and Service Costs. If you qualify and the court approves your application, you won’t have to pay the fees. For more information about waiving the filing fee, click here.
Be sure to keep a copy of everything you file with the court.
Unless a stipulation is filed, the court usually serves the other party the papers. There are rules about how to do this. For more information about serving papers, click here.
The documents can be served on you by mail or in person. If you are served by certified mail, the mail receipt will prove that you have been served. If you are served by law enforcement, the officer will provide a service affidavit to the court.
You may be mailed an Acceptance of Service form . You don't have to sign this form. But, if you don't sign it, the court may later make you pay the costs of sending a sheriff to serve you.
Filing an Answer
Once you have received a summons and complaint, you will have 20 days to file an answer with the court. The 20 days starts on the date the sheriff serves you, on the date you sign an acceptance or acknowledgment, or on the date you sign for the papers at the post office. You can make a written request to the court for more time if you need more time to file your answer. You should tell the court why you need more time. For example, if you can't get an appointment with a lawyer sooner than 20 days, you can say that.
The answer tells the court that you want to participate in the case. If you are representing yourself, you will tell this to the court in your answer.
You can get the Parentage Answer form and fill it out by hand. If you prefer, you can complete this form online and print it out when you are done. The numbered statements in the answer correspond to statements in the complaint form. Check the box indicating whether you agree with each statement in the complaint. You can write in what you believe to be true if you disagree with a statement.
Making a Counterclaim
The answer form includes a section where you can make a counterclaim if you want to. A counterclaim tells the court that you also want a determination of parentage and establishment of parental rights and responsibilities and child support. It gives you a chance to tell the court what relief you are requesting (what you want the court to do for you) in the parentage proceedings. A counterclaim is basically your own parentage complaint.
A counterclaim is usually filed with the answer. It should be filed with the court within 20 days of receiving service of the divorce complaint. If you don't file a counterclaim with your answer, you can ask the court to allow you to file it late. The court will generally allow you to file it later unless it is unfair to the other party.
You don't have to file a counterclaim. But if you do, the court will not dismiss the case. If the other parent chooses not to proceed with the case, they may ask the court to dismiss the complaint. The court can dismiss a case even after the court has issued temporary orders. If the court dismisses the case, all the orders the court has already issued in the case can be dismissed. That includes orders involving support and care of your child (or children).
If you do file a counterclaim, you will have to pay a filing fee (select Family Division Fees here).
If You Do Not File an Answer
It is very important for you to file an answer. If you don't file an answer to the complaint, the court can enter a default judgment against you. A default judgment is a decision made by the court without your input or participation. The order can determine parentage and parental rights and responsibilities, and the court can also order you to pay child support.
If you don't file an answer but show up for a scheduled court hearing, you will be allowed to participate. You will need to file with the court a Notice of Appearance form. This tells the court how to contact you and where to send you information about your case. If any of your contact information changes, you must notify the court and the other party by completing Notice of Name and/or Address Change Form and sending a copy to the court and the other party and to the Office of Child Support (OCS), if they are involved in your case. That includes notices telling you the date and time of court hearings in your case. If you file a Notice of Appearance or appear for a court hearing before the hearing, the court will allow you to participate. But you should not delay in filing papers to let the court know you want to participate.
Filing and Serving the Answer and Counterclaim
You can file your answer with the court by mail or by delivering it in person.
You must also serve the papers on the other party and the Office of Child Support, if they are involved. This is true for every document you file with the court in the case. If the other party is represented by a lawyer, you must serve papers you file on the lawyer. To prove that you have served the people you are required to serve, you must file a Certificate of Service with every paper you file in court.
The Certificate of Service must
- Certify that the document has been given to every other party
- Say how it was given (e.g., mail or personal delivery)
- State the name and address of each person or entity served, and
- State the date of the mailing or other means of delivery
The court will start the case with several notices and orders. You must follow the court's orders and attend hearings when you get a notice.
Order Regarding Parenting Course
Both parents must attend a parenting course called Helping Children Cope with Separation and Divorce (COPE). You can choose the time and place that best fits your schedule. The COPE course gives you information to help you and your kids deal with the changes to your family relationships. The sooner you attend the course, the better.
Order Regarding Self-Represented Litigant Education
Most courts require you to attend a one-and-a-half-hour course to help you represent yourself. The course is usually offered at the courthouse. Volunteer lawyers generally provide the education. The sooner you attend, the better informed you will be. This course will help you represent yourself more effectively.
Notice to Attend a Case Manager Conference
You will receive a notice to attend a case manager conference. This is a meeting with both parties and a case manager at the courthouse. If the Office of Child Support (OCS) is a party to the case, a representative from OCS will also attend the conference on behalf of the State of Vermont regarding child support only. This conference is usually held four to eight weeks after the case is filed. Use the time before that to fill out your financial forms and gather the financial records that you are required to bring to the conference. You must bring copies of all of these documents for the court, the other party, and OCS if they are a party. Also, always keep a copy for yourself.
Case Manager Conference
Usually, the first court hearing will be a case manager conference. The judge won’t be there. A case manager will run the conference with both of you. The purpose is to figure out what you can agree to, and what issues you will be asking the judge or magistrate to decide. The case manager will help you. Here are some topics you will cover:
- Parentage (Do you agree about who are the child's parents?)
- Parental rights and responsibilities (sometimes called custody)
- Parent–child contact (sometimes called visitation)
- Child support
- Health insurance
If you don't agree about parentage, the court can order genetic testing.
Parental Rights and Responsibilities and Parent–Child Contact
Your child’s best interests are very important. If you and the other parent have agreed on parentage, you can then try to come up with a plan that is best for your child. In particular, you will need to reach an agreement on the following matters:
- What’s the best schedule for your child in terms of the time your child spends with each of you? Consider your child’s needs and where each of you live.
- How should vacations and holidays be handled?
- Should the schedule change as your child gets older?
- How will the child get back and forth between the two households?
- Who should be responsible for the day-to-day care of your child? This is called physical parental rights and responsibilities.
- Who should be responsible for the major decisions about things such as medical care, religious upbringing, and education? This is called legal parental rights and responsibilities.
- Should these responsibilities be shared, or primarily held by one parent? You can agree to share legal rights and responsibilities, physical rights and responsibilities, or both. And you can come up with a schedule for your child to spend time with both of you in a way that best meets the child’s needs. The court cannot order shared custody unless you both agree.
You can find more information about parental rights and responsibilities and parent–child contact on this site here.
The case manager will address child support and health insurance for the child (or children). You should come to the conference with information about the cost of including your child on your health insurance plan, even if you have not currently enrolled in the plan. You should also bring:
- Your completed Financial Affidavit – Non-Divorce Form (Form 400-00813S)
- Your four most recent paystubs
- Your two most recent federal income tax returns
Make sure you bring enough copies for all participants.
Your child support is based on a computer model that considers:
- Each parent’s gross monthly income or earning capacity
- What each parent pays for health insurance and day care for the child
- How many nights the child spends with each parent
- Whether the child has special needs and expenses
The computer calculates a child support guideline amount to be paid by one of you. The person who pays, who is called the obligor, is usually the parent who has less time with the child or who makes more money. This guideline amount is legally presumed by the court to be the amount to be paid. You and the other parent can’t just pick a figure and hope the court will agree. The court will order a different amount to be paid if it finds that the guideline amount is unreasonable. You can find more information about child support here.
The case manager will help you write up the agreements you make. You and your child will be better off if you can reach an agreement with the other parent. Here are some reasons:
- You and the other parent know more about your children and your finances than a judge ever will. You are in a better position to find fair and practical solutions to the issues.
- Most people would rather make their own major life decisions.
- The two of you will have to work together to parent your children through the rest of their lives.
- You and the other parent are more likely to follow the court order if you have agreed to it together.
You should not agree to anything you are uncomfortable with.
If you run out of time but think you may be able to agree on more issues, the court can schedule a second case manager conference. If you have any questions or concerns, you should bring them up with the case manager.
Tell the case manager at the beginning of the conference if there is domestic abuse in the relationship. The case manager can help come up with a way to communicate—such as texting or using a third party—to keep you safe.
The more prepared you are, the more progress you can make at the conference. Sometimes people just can’t talk to each other. But if you can, try to talk with each other before the conference to see if you can work out at least some issues. You don’t need to work everything out. If you disagree about something, just make a note of it and let the case manager know.
You can agree to a temporary order or a final order. A temporary order applies until the court issues a final order after a hearing, or until you and the other parent file a final agreement that is approved by the court. If one parent is going through a job change, or is uncertain of future income, you can have a temporary child support order. The court will review the support order at the final hearing if both of you still have not agreed to a final order.
Many parents are able to work out parenting schedules and child support with the help of the case manager. When they do, the court reviews the agreement within a few days and signs it. That turns your agreement into a court order. Court orders stay in effect until the court issues new orders. Once parentage, parental rights and responsibilities, and child support orders are issued, the case will close with the court.
Sometimes you need a third party to help you come up with agreements. Mediation offers a structure for communicating at a time when working together is difficult. Mediators do not decide who is right or wrong. A skilled mediator can help you find practical solutions.
Mediation is less formal and more private than a public hearing in court. Parents who have made agreements by using a mediator have reported greater satisfaction than parents who had the court make the decisions for them.
The Vermont Superior Court Family Mediation Program provides subsidized mediation services to qualifying people. You can find more information about family court mediation here, including a list of family court mediators.
Sometimes parents can’t agree on critical issues that need to be decided. When that happens, the court will decide. The case manager refers disputes to either the child support magistrate or the family court judge, or both. In some cases, you may file a motion on your own to ask the court to take some action. The magistrate or the judge (or both) will hold hearings at a later date.
The kinds of issues that you may need the court to decide on a temporary basis until the final hearing include paternity, parental rights and responsibilities, parent–child contact, and child support.
If you agree on all of the terms of your parentage action, you put them in writing. You can get the forms online or at the courthouse. Your agreement should address all of the issues between you. These include:
- Legal responsibility (who will make major decisions about medical issues, education, and religious upbringing)
- Physical responsibility (where the child will live)
- Parent–child contact (how much time the child will spend with each parent)
- Child support
The judge and magistrate will review the proposed stipulation packet. If they find all forms to be in order and in the best interest of the child, they will issue final orders for service on the parties. These orders will end your case and close the court file.
If you do not sign the stipulations, the court will schedule hearings before the judge or magistrate (or both) to determine the issues that may be contested.
Under Vermont law, you are presumed to be a parent if any of the following are true:
- You fail to have genetic testing as ordered.
- You have voluntarily acknowledged parentage under the laws of Vermont or any other state, by filling out and signing a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage form and filing the completed and witnessed form with the Department of Health.
- The probability that you are the biological parent exceeds 98 percent as established by a scientifically reliable genetic test.
- The child was born while you and your partner were legally married to each other.
If either party denies that the alleged father is the biological parent, or feels some doubt, the party can ask the court to order genetic testing. Here are some reasons for asking the court to order genetic testing:
- The parties were not married when the child was born, and a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage was not signed and filed
- The parties signed a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage form, but one party has evidence to present to the court that will demonstrate that one of the parties is not a biological parent. That party must give a description of that evidence
- The parties were married when the child was born, but one of them has information that suggests that the other person is not the biological parent of the child. That party must present that information.
The parties must indicate who will pay for genetic testing. The Office of Child Support (OCS) usually pays for it if the court has ordered it.
The Office of Child Support (OCS) will pay for the genetic test if the mother and child are receiving assistance or one parent has applied for services from OCS and a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage form was never signed. Otherwise, the court has information about laboratories and their charges, and it is up to the parties to arrange and pay for the testing themselves.
The court order will state the time and place for both parties and the child to give their genetic samples. The test results are usually available within six weeks.
After the genetic testing results come back, the court will schedule a parentage hearing unless the results show that the tested person cannot possibly be the father.
If you ignore a hearing notice and do not show up, you give up your right to present your arguments.