Voluntary acknowledgements of paternity (VAPs) significantly determine male legal parentage at birth for many children born of sex to unwed mothers in the United States. VAP processes are chiefly dictated by the federal Social Security Act, which places certain mandates on states participating in federally-subsidized welfare programs. These processes include norms on effective VAP establishments and on VAP disestablishments, either via early rescissions (within sixty days) by signatories or via later contests (after sixty days) by challengers, including signatories. The norms are driven by the Act’s desire to increase reimbursements of state child welfare payments from unwed fathers regardless of whether the fathers are childrearing.

These VAP processes are significantly employed by states for all children of unwed parents, regardless of any welfare assistance, and for childcare as well as child support purposes. Such uses create tensions since legal parentage often has nothing to do with welfare. Further, as to VAP contests, notwithstanding the Act’s promotion of uniform norms, there are significant variations in American state laws. Differences on VAP contests arise regarding who may challenge; what proof is required for an effective challenge; and what time limits exist for any challenge. These variations can prompt troubling results which should be mitigated through reforms of VAP challenge processes undertaken at the federal level.

Because parentage establishments and contests are usually undertaken with no focus on welfare reimbursement and much focus on the childcare interests of parents and the wellbeing of children, American states should create separate parental acknowledgment processes operating outside of the Social Security Act. Such processes, at a minimum, should allow acknowledgments by alleged parents who claim to have met state de facto (and comparable) parent standards, including both men and women. Deemphasizing welfare reimbursements, and emphasizing child wellbeing, will better ensure that beneficial (if not constitutionally protected) parent-child relations continue.