In the course of our work in representing individuals and families throughout northern and central Alabama, our Birmingham child support attorneys have met countless loving, involved fathers who want nothing more than to be an integral part of their children's lives.
However, there are also some who never wanted to be parents in the first place. This is not a judgment as much as a statement of fact, and the reality is, biologically, men have less choice in the matter than women.
A recent opinion column, entitled "Is Forced Fatherhood Fair?" appeared recently in The New York Times, addressing this issue of whether, biology aside, it is fair to force a man to be responsible, at least financially, for a child he didn't want to have.
Traditionally, the thinking has been (and continues to persist in the courts) that if a paternity test proves you fathered a child, you will be held at least minimally accountable for child support payments to the custodial parent of that child, should he or she seek to make you pay. Your consent at the outset of the pregnancy is, for the most part, a non-issue, as the choice about whether to carry the pregnancy to term and/or subsequently whether to raise the child, is primarily the prerogative of the mother.
So while a mother's role is entirely voluntary, dad's role in all of this is sometimes not freely assumed, but rather legally mandated. Should this change?
Very few would argue a man's right to force a woman to abort a pregnancy against her will. But there have been legal scholars lately raising the question of whether fatherhood should be compulsory, or whether men should be allowed to decide at the outset whether they would rather not be involved.
Of course, there are arguments that having two legal parents, or at least two parents who are financially supportive of that child, offer that youth a significant advantage.
It's also worth noting that disputes regarding fatherhood rights and obligations can be resolved in a number of ways by the courts, with judges considering not only biology but whether the individual was in a marriage or marriage-like relationship to the mother and whether he had a care-giving or support role in the life of the child. That means that in some cases, the boyfriend or husband of the mother might sometimes be tapped to offer child support, even if that man is not actually the biological parent of that child.
Still, there is a great deal of debate about whether we need to offer more respect to the reproductive autonomy of men by allowing them more options in situations of accidental pregnancy. But the moral, ethical and legal questions are vast and complex and not likely to be resolved anytime soon.
So what if you are biological father to a child conceived in an accidental pregnancy?
It's true that if your parental rights are terminated, per Alabama Code 26-18-7, your obligations – financial and otherwise – no longer exist.
However, the reality is that in Alabama, it is not as simple as signing over your parental rights in order to avoid paying child support. It is not even enough that the mother may consent to this arrangement as well. There will have to be a court case opened for a judge to consider whether such a move is in the best interest of the child.
If you and the mother agree to this arrangement prior to the child's arrival and you are not married, you may be able to avoid any issues, at least initially, by having your name kept off the birth certificate. However, that will not necessarily shield you from responsibility later if the mother changes her mind and decides to compel you to undergo a paternity test.
These issues are complex matters, both personally and legally, and not ones that you should take on without careful consideration and extensive consultation from an experienced Birmingham child support attorney.
If you are grappling with issues of child support in Birmingham, contact Birmingham Family Law Attorney Steven Eversole at (866) 831-5292.
Is Forced Fatherhood Fair? June 12, 2013, By Laurie Shrage, The New York Times