There are generally four main overarching areas of cases in family law in California, (1) Divorce, (2) Domestic Violence, (3) Some Adoptions, and (4) Paternity.
When people hear “paternity case” they understandably assume there is a dispute as to the parentage of a child. While that is true in some cases, more often the parentage of the child is not disputed. Instead, the parents were never married and now there are issues of child custody, visitation, and support. Essentially, the Court needs a vehicle to have an open case so these issues can be resolved for the parties involved. For this reason, if the parties were not married but need a Court Order regarding custody, visitation and support, a paternity case is where their case will start.
Paternity cases begin with a Petition for Paternity that is filed with the Court and served on the other party/parent. The Petition declares key pieces of information such as the name, age and birthdate of the children involved, the parentage of those children, and the requested custody and visitation for those children. A Petition for Paternity can even be completed and filed during pregnancy before the child is born. In that case, the expected delivery date is declared in the Petition. Either parent may file the Petition for Paternity to initiate a case.
Once the Petition is served, the other parent then has a statutory time period to file and serve their Response to the Petition. In that Response they will generally either agree or deny the contentions in the Petition. If there is a dispute as to parentage, that is also generally alleged in the Response.
After the Petition and Response have been filed and served on both parties in the case, the parties are then considered to have “appeared” in the case and the case may proceed for potential hearings on custody, visitation, and support. However, the Court will not automatically set a hearing date on those issues.
The Court in San Diego (and some other counties in California) will often set status conferences either called Family Resolution Conferences, or Case Status Conferences. People representing themselves often confuse these hearings with a hearing where the Court will hear their arguments on the merits of the case and issue rulings. That is generally not the case. Instead, these hearings are simply status hearings designed by the Court to ensure cases are not filed and then not litigated to resolution (either through Court order or settlement). The Court is looking to ensure cases are moving forward, and not sitting dormant with the Court for years.
If a party to the case wants to have a hearing on custody, visitation, support, or any other issue, they must affirmatively request such a hearing from the Court. To do this, the party must file a motion called a Request for Order. In those pleadings, the party would be required to detail what exactly they are requesting the Cout to order and why. Once filed, and a hearing date is assigned by the Court, the requesting party is then required to officially serve those pleadings on the other party. Without proper service, the Court generally cannot move forward with the hearing because the other party must have proper notice and an opportunity to be heard and respond to the request. If the party is properly served, and they do not file and serve their Response or attend the hearing, then the Court may be able to move forward with your request.
If and when that Request for Order hearing, or multiple hearings in some cases, is completed the paternity is still not completed. To officially complete a paternity case a Judgment of Paternity must be completed and ordered by the Court. The Judgment includes memorialization of the Court’s orders on all paternity issues including parentage, custody and visitation and support. The Court will not draft this Judgment for the parties, they must complete it themselves and submit it to the Court for review, approval and order. Only once the Judgment is ordered by the Court is the case considered “post judgment” and the Court will no longer require you to attend status hearings. Having a final Judgment, however, does not mean you are stuck with whatever the current custody and support orders are forever. When there are issues of custody, visitation and support, the Court retains jurisdiction to make further orders in the future if necessary and requested by the parties. The requirements of what the Court will need to make such changes in the orders varies.
The Paternity process can get complicated, confusing, and frustrating. Having a professional on your side to help guide you through the potential pitfalls can be extremely helpful.