Getting to Know Legal Parentage Terms

Questions surrounding a child’s parentage present families with critical considerations, both legal and interpersonal.

Children deserve to receive proper emotional and physical support from their parents, and parents have the right to make decisions about their kids’ lives and well-being.

If you’re involved in a situation or legal case surrounding questions of paternity or parentage, you can help protect yourself and your children by learning some legal terms that may be relevant to your position.

Parentage vs. paternity and maternity

The words parentage and paternity are sometimes used interchangeably, though they mean different things.

Parentage: the legal relationship between a child and a parent. The term is also used to describe the process of determining a child’s legal parents. Parentage includes paternity (related to the father) and maternity (related to the mother)

Paternity: a legal acknowledgment of fatherhood after a child is born

If a man is married to a woman when she gives birth to a baby, he is assumed to be the legal father unless other information and circumstances supersede that status. Other acknowledgments of paternity come from signing a legal document known as a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity; or through actions to prove paternity, such as a DNA test.

Maternity: a legal acknowledgment of motherhood after a child is born

While maternity can be questioned in the legal world, issues of paternity are more commonly discussed, because the act of physical labor and birth determines a child’s maternity in most cases.

Legal descriptions of people involved in paternity cases

Depending on the specific aspects of each case, a child’s parentage may be determined to include various people in their lives, providing these legal “parents” with associated rights related to the child.

People to whom parentage may extend include:

  • Biological parents: mothers and fathers who contributed DNA to their child
  • Presumed parents: a person viewed under Illinois law to be the parent of a child. This is also called the presumption of parentage.
  • Same-sex parents: individuals involved in a same-sex relationship who facilitated the birth of their child (financially, emotionally, etc.)
  • Adoptive parents: mothers and fathers who legally adopted their child
  • Legal guardians: individuals whom a  court legally deemed to be guardians of a child
  • De facto parents: individuals who have provided physical care, psychological support, and perhaps financial support to a child who is not biologically theirs. Some conditions must be met for this designation, which can include extended family members, stepparents and others.
  • Surrogate mothers: women who have gestated a child with the intention of ceding parentage to another party, usually through a legal agreement

Legal documents related to parentage and paternity

Establishing parentage between a child and a biological or non-biological parent legally ties them to one another. This designation — however it comes about — provides both the child and their parent with certain rights under the law.

Documents that help establish legal parentage:

  • Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity: legal document signed by the parent of a child to recognize their biological connection to the child. VAPs are often used by parents who are unmarried.
  • Petition for parentage: legal document that starts a case to prove parentage. One parent files the petition, identifying the person they believe to be their child’s other parent and explaining why.
  • Order of paternity: legal result of a paternity case in which the family court determines the man is the father of a child

Other legal terms about parentage

  • Wedlock: the state of two people being legally married. Often seen in the phrase “out of wedlock,” meaning two people are not legally married
  • Retroactive child support: If a man is determined through a paternity case to be the father of a child, the court may order him to pay retroactive child support, due from the time the child was born, possibly including hospital expenses related to the birth. This is relevant when the child is still very young.
  • Putative father: a man who may be a father to a child, but was not married to the child’s mother on or before the birth, and hasn’t been legally identified as the child’s father

We’re Here to Help

If you need help with a paternity case, legal adoption, or other parentage matter, we would be honored to assist you. Please call Sterk Family Law Group, P.C. or complete the form below to speak with one of our caring legal team members


This is a legal advertisement from Sterk Family Law Group. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be construed as such. This article is for informational and educational purposes only.

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