What does it mean to be a father? In most cases, it means raising a child. Providing support and guidance to help your son or daughter learn and grow. But the legal questions of fatherhood can be far more complicated.

In Florida, there’s a big difference between legal fatherhood and biological fatherhood. And there are plenty of reasons why mothers and fathers may want to think about establishing paternity.

Legal fathers versus biological fathers

Florida law acknowledges the mother’s rights as soon as a baby is born. But the law doesn’t recognize the biological father unless he:

  • Is married to the mother when the child is born
  • Signs an agreement with the mother, in which they both state he’s the father
  • Gets the court to acknowledge his paternity, despite the mother’s disagreement

Despite what you may think, Florida won’t recognize you as your child’s legal father just because your name is on his or her birth certificate.

In fact, men who have had babies with women married to other men have been frustrated by the court’s focus on “legitimacy.” The law aims to protect the child and strongly favors the mother’s husband as the legal father—to ensure the child grows into a “legitimate” family. It’s possible to fight this bias, but it’s not easy. In fact, it wasn’t considered possible until one biological father recently took his case all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.

How paternity changes lives

If you and your child’s mother get along, even if you don’t have legal paternity, you might not realize how important it can be. You might play a key role in your child’s life, spending time together on a regular basis and helping to make big decisions.

But if that’s not the case, you may need legal paternity to:

  • Share time with your child
  • Earn a say in major decisions about education, healthcare and religious upbringing
  • Prevent the mother from moving with the child out of the state or even the country
  • Stop someone else from adopting your child

As the biological father, you can file a paternity order. When you do so, you strengthen your claim for your parental rights. However, those rights come with obligations. You may need to pay child support. Of course, your child’s mother can also file a paternity order to seek child support. By filing first, you might strengthen your case for more time with your child.

One step toward being a “real” dad

Your child might not worry about whether you have legal paternity. But he or she will certainly know whether you’ve been around. Legal paternity may provide the foundation for a stable, loving relationship.