Can a mother refuse a paternity test?
A quick trawl through discussion forums on popular parenting websites sees a familiar question being raised by worried mums: Can I refuse a paternity test?
Establishing paternity of a child can be important for many reasons. The potential father may want to know if the child is his so he can establish a relationship with the child. It has implications for financial support and inheritance rights. On the other hand, a man may be asked for child support for a child that he does not believe is his. Even if a man disputes paternity, if he has been named by the mother as the father of her child, he will have to pay child maintenance until DNA testing proves otherwise. In all these cases, a mother may refuse a paternity DNA test.
The reasons for refusing are wide-ranging and some downright harrowing. Some involve mothers being hesitant of the process and the implications involved. Some are avoiding the forced continuation of abusive relationships. Some are uncooperative as they simply do not want the father to be involved in any way with the upbringing of their child. Relationships may have broken down, the parents may have moved on and started new relationships, the mother may have identified another potential father figure for her child.
The fact remains that while it is usually easy to identify a child’s mother, only scientific DNA testing can confirm paternity and name an individual as a father. In most stable relationships, paternity is rarely an issue. A man is deemed to be a child’s legal father if he is married to the mother at the time of the child’s birth, or if his name is registered on the child’s birth certificate (unless legally proved otherwise). However, research estimates that 1 in 50 UK dads unknowingly raise another father’s child.1 In some cases, the mother has not revealed the real father’s identity despite her knowing or at least having a strong idea. In other cases, the mother may genuinely not know who the father is following a succession of partners.
What are paternity tests?
Paternity tests prove parentage by analysing DNA within samples provided by the family members. By looking at specific DNA markers in each sample, it is possible to identify which half of the child’s DNA is inherited from the mother and which half is from the father. When testing a biological father, both child and father will share identical sections of DNA at each marker. When the tested man is not the biological father there will be differences in the DNA. The results are 100% accurate.
There are two types of paternity tests available: Peace of Mind and Legal. Peace of Mind DNA testing kits can be easily acquired at local High Street stores2 such as Home Bargains, or they can be posted direct to your home from our testing laboratory. Full instructions tell you how to simply and painlessly collect your DNA samples (usually cheek buccal cells) using the swabs contained in the kits. After returning the samples to our in-house laboratory for analysis, the results are available the next working day, or even same day if needed. These types of home testing kits start at £99.
Legal paternity tests are needed to stand as evidence in court. To comply, they must be performed under specific instructions, known as chain of custody. Trained sample collectors ensure that the correct individual is providing the sample by checking ID, taking photographs and getting signed paperwork. In other words, the DNA sample does not leave the custody of those who are legally responsible for ensuring the authenticity of its results. These legal tests could still be done in your own home, but a sample collector would need to attend. The collectors pass the samples to AlphaBiolabs, an accredited testing company, to carry out the tests and to provide a report. AlphaBiolabs is accredited by the Ministry of Justice3 and has its own website where further information on paternity testing is available including the cost. Legal samples can also be taken for free at one of AlphaBiolabs’ Walk in Centres.4
Anyone with a ‘sufficient personal interest’ (including the Child Support Agency) can apply to the High Court, a County Court or a magistrate for a declaration of parentage. There are various pieces of key legislation which determine how courts approach disagreements between parents about their children.5 The main one is the Children Act 1989. It has been updated by subsequent Acts of Parliament, most notably the Children and Families Act 2014, but remains the most important part of the law for separated parents. The court may issue a direction that DNA tests are performed to determine parentage. The consent of a child under 18 years old is not required, only the consent of the person having ‘care and control’ of him or her. If that person does not consent then the court may arrange for the sample to be taken if it considers to do so would be in the child’s best interests. In other words, a mother could be forced to undertake a paternity DNA test.
A mother could refuse a Peace of Mind paternity test. However, a mother’s permission is not needed and the DNA test could still be performed if the father has parental responsibility for the child. Samples can just be analysed from the alleged father and the child. No DNA sample is needed from the mother. However, the Human Genetics Commission and the Department of Health both recommend that the mother should be at least aware of the test if not directly involved and it is viewed that motherless testing could be “harmful to the child, as well as the family unit as a whole”. All reputable testing laboratories would strongly recommend the inclusion of the mother’s sample for this reason alone; however, there are also scientific reasons to include the mother in a test. When the mother is included it is possible to identify which of the child’s DNA comes from her, leaving the paternal DNA to compare against the alleged father. Probability of paternity can thus be calculated with much greater certainty when the mother is tested.
Regardless of who is instructing the paternity test, written authority is needed from any adult whose samples are provided for DNA testing, and it is a criminal offence to take such a sample without consent. Only those who have parental responsibility for the child are able to give permission for the child’s DNA to be used in the test.6
Peace of Mind paternity tests are the cheaper option but are for personal information only. They cannot be used in a Court of Law or for any legal reasons. If a family wanted to amend a child’s birth certificate, for example, then a Legal DNA test would be required, following the chain of custody conditions are outlined above.
Accepting the result
Doing a DNA test does not mean that the alleged father will be granted contact with a child. If positive, it simply means that he is recognised as the child’s father in the eyes of the law.
Courts of law, as well as psychologists, maintain that establishing a child’s biological origin is highly important for a child’s sense of identity. It is generally accepted within the family justice system that, unless there are exceptional circumstances, it is always best that a child’s true identity is made known as soon as possible to lessen any emotional trauma. However, it is important to carefully consider the fully ramifications of the result for everybody concerned, particularly for the child. Getting proof of biological parentage may be reassuring but on the other hand, it could be devastating. Counselling either before or after the test may be in order.
The process of establishing paternity may be lengthy and involve discussion, negotiation, mediation and even legal action. So, yes you can refuse to undertake a paternity test, but a father can still perform a home Peace of Mind test without the mother’s DNA. If a mother refuses to determine paternity for legal reasons, a court can order a paternity test be carried out. A mother has to give her consent for children to have a DNA test but the court can override any refusal if it considers it’s in the child’s best interest for the sample to be taken. And at the end of the day, this is what needs to be kept in mind: it’s the children’s best interest that counts.
- Larmuseau M, Matthijs K, Wenseleers T. Cuckolded fathers rare in human populations. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 2016(31):327–329
- Family Law Reform Act 1969 ss20, 21 and 23; Family Law Act 1986 s55A; Births & Deaths Registration Act 1953 s14A; Human Tissue Act 2004; s27 Child Support Act 1991