Finding out you have a young child can be a shocking and life-changing experience. Your priorities and outlook on life can immediately change. You want to be more involved in your child’s life, but you may not know how to go about it or whether you’re even allowed to obtain paternity, custodial, or visitation rights.

Trying to establish a relationship with your child after an extended and unintentional absence can be difficult, but as a father, you have certain rights—even if you weren’t present for your child’s birth and early life. It’s important that you both understand your rights and know how to exercise them, especially if you want to develop a close bond with your child.

4 Important Things to Do When You Learn You’re a Father

It’s vital that you act right away if a woman tells you that you’re the father of her child. Creating an action plan and following these steps as soon as possible is the best way to get off to the right start in this situation:

  1. Get in touch with a family law attorney.
    Issues relating to children, child support, visitation, and paternity may be completely foreign to you. However, the mother of your child may be well-versed in these issues—and she may already have an attorney on her side. Attempting to navigate these complex issues without legal representation is difficult and can result in one-sided outcomes that likely won’t end in your favor. An experienced family law attorney can review the facts of the case and help you cover all your bases.

  3. Establish paternity.
    After getting legal representation, it’s important that you establish paternity. Doing so not only proves that you’re the father of the child, but it also grants you certain rights. You should first request a DNA test to determine if you’re the father. These tests must be ordered through the court system to be considered valid. If the test proves that you’re the father, you can legally establish paternity by signing a voluntary Declaration of Paternity, or by getting a court order.

  5. Determine your visitation rights.
    Once you’ve proven the child is yours and have established your paternity, your next step is to determine your visitation and custodial rights. Because you weren’t in your child’s life from the beginning and haven’t established a relationship yet, you may be assigned a step-up visitation plan that involves an increase in visitation rights as your child gets older to slowly build attachment and trust. Over time, your visits may change from short and supervised to more prolonged visits, include overnight stays.

  7. Determine your child support responsibilities and payment schedule.
    How much you owe in child support can be complicated, especially if you were unaware of your child’s existence until recently. In addition to determining how much you’ll need to pay right now and in the future, you also may need to determine how much you owe the mother in back payments—if you owe any back payments at all. Consulting with your California family law attorney is the best way to work with the judge and the court system to find a plan that works for you, your child, and your child’s mother.