Parentage in California

This guide can help you:

  • Understand what it means to be a legal parent and why it’s important
  • Learn about ways to determine legal parentage (or paternity) for yourself or someone else
  • Respond if you receive court papers trying to determine whether you are a legal parent
  • Learn what you can do if you want the court to determine (make a decision) that you are not a legal parent

In California, only legal parents can get custody and visitation (parenting time) orders about their child. Legal parents also have a responsibility to support their child financially.

Who is a legal parent?

In general, you are a child's legal parent if

  • You are the child’s birth parent (not a surrogate)

  • You and the other parent were married or registered domestic partners when your child was born or conceived 

  • You and the other parent filed a Declaration that establishes you as the legal parents

  • A judge determined that you are a legal parent in a court case (for example, in a child support, juvenile dependency, domestic violence, or adoption case)

When a child is conceived using a sperm or egg donor or a surrogate gives birth to the child, additional steps may be needed to establish parentage. Contact your local Self-Help Center or ask an attorney for advice about your situation.


This area of law is complicated and there are strict deadlines.

For example, if you signed a Voluntary Declaration of Parentage, if you act right away, you may be able to cancel the Declaration. If there's a parentage judgment that says you are the child's legal parent, it's hard to have the judgment undone (set aside) because there are only a few reasons that allow it and strict deadlines. If you and the other parent were married and together when the child is born, it can be very complicated. Talk to a lawyer for advice.

Talk to your court's Self-Help staff or get advice from a lawyer right away. 
"Determining parentage" means the court makes an order saying someone is or is not the legal parent of a child or the parents sign a Voluntary Declaration form.

Why legal parentage matters

Legal parents have rights and responsibilities

A child's legal parents

  • Can ask for custody and visitation (parenting time) orders
  • Are required to financially support their child
  • Can be listed on a California birth certificate

A child can inherit and get financial benefits (like Social Security or survivor's benefits) from their legal parents. A child born outside the US may be able to become a US Citizen if one of the legal parents is a US Citizen.

If someone is not a legal parent, they must become one to have these same rights and responsibilities. This is called establishing parentage.

Parentage is a requirement for custody, visitation (parenting time), and support

If you are both legal parents, you can ask for custody, visitation (parenting time), and child support orders by filing a petition with the court. 

If not, you need to establish parentage so a judge can make these orders.

Different ways to determine parentage

Sign a voluntary declaration

illustration of a paper form with signature

You and the other parent can establish legal parentage for your child without going to court if you both parents sign a Voluntary Declaration of Parentage (VDOP) form and file it with the state. 

This form is usually signed at a hospital when a child is born. But you can sign it later.

Once filed, the VDOP has the same effect as a court order. 

If either parent changes their mind, they have a limited time to cancel the VDOP. If you have questions, contact your local Self-Help Center before you sign the VDOP.

Ask the court to determine parentage

illustration representing a courthouse

A judge can decide who a child’s legal parents are - or are not - through a parentage case or an adoption case.

You can ask your local child support agency to open a case to establish parentage and child support orders. For more information, you can get free help from the Family Law Facilitator in your county.

If you are not sure if you or someone else is the child's parent

You can start a parentage case and ask the judge to decide. If there's a question about who the genetic father is, the judge may order genetic testing. But, the judge will look at a number of things, not just genetics, to decide if someone is a legal parent. A judge can determine (decide) someone is a child's legal parent even if they are not genetically related.

It's possible in limited cases. For example, it's possible if the judge finds that it would hurt the child if additional parents were not legally recognized. For more information, contact your local Self-Help Center or ask a lawyer for advice about your situation.

If you received court papers asking a judge to decide if you are a legal parent

If you received a Petition to Determine a Parental Relationship (form FL-200) and a Summons (form FL-210), someone is asking a judge to determine if they or you are the legal parent of a child (called parentage, or formerly paternity). Find out your options if you received a Petition to Determine a Parental Relationship

If you received a Summons and Complaint Regarding Parental Obligations (form FL-600), the Local Child Support Agency (LCSA) has filed papers asking for the court to order that you or the child's other parent pay child support. They may also be asking for the court to determine if you and the other person listed in the papers are the child's legal parents. 

Where to get free help

Every county court in California has a Self-Help Center (Family Law Facilitator) that can help answer questions about what forms you need to file and where. If they cannot help you, they can give you information about where to find low-cost legal help in your area.


Step-by-step instructions

This guide has step-by-step instructions for starting and responding to a case to determine legal parentage. As part of a parentage case, you can also ask for custody, visitation (parenting time), child support, genetic testing, and other orders.


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