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In recent years, there’s been a surge of interest regarding DNA testing as scientists continue to unravel the mysteries of humanity’s building blocks. Most people are familiar with retail at-home testing kits promoted by companies such as 23andMe.
What's in this Guide?
- What are court-ordered DNA tests used for?
- Different types of court-ordered DNA tests
- Establishing Parentage
- What is the step-by-step process?
- How to request a court-ordered DNA test
- Court-ordered DNA test costs
- How long does a court-ordered DNA test take?
- How accurate are court-ordered DNA tests?
- What makes a legal DNA test court admissible?
- Can a home DNA test be used in court?
- Important things to Consider
- List of AABB accredited laboratories across the U.S.
Disclaimer: Before You Read
It is important to know that your genes are not your destiny. There are various environmental and genetic factors working together to shape you. No matter your genetic makeup, maintain ideal blood pressure and glucose levels, avoid harmful alcohol intake, exercise regularly, get regular sleep. And for goodness sake, don't smoke.
Genetics is a quickly changing topic. Read More...
But there are also more formal tests used for legal purposes to help prove or not prove certain facts that can have lifelong implications for those who are involved.
What are court-ordered DNA tests used for?
Court-ordered DNA tests are used as evidence for a number of situations. They will either confirm or deny a genetic link to any number of situations.
The key difference between at-home testing and court-ordered DNA testing is that court-ordered DNA testing must follow a strict chain of custody protocol so that there are no alterations or tampering that can take place before, during and after a sample is taken and analyzed 1.
Once the results of the legal DNA test are provided, they may be used as evidence wherever needed, including state, tribal, or federal court cases.
The most common DNA tests ordered by the courts involve paternity issues, attempting to establish clear and unrefutably biological links between a mother, father and their child.
More and more cases are also grabbing headlines in helping to solve cold case crimes. As databases continue to grow, law enforcement agencies are able to take DNA samples from old cases and match them to a growing wealth of data that can produce leads and help solve crimes, sometimes those that are decades old 2.
Different types of court-ordered DNA tests
While paternity and cold case crimes draw the most attention, court-ordered DNA testing can actually be used in a number of situations.
Immigration. Laws on the books allow for blood relatives to join other relatives already in the United States in some instances. To ensure that there is an actual biological link, INS may require court-ordered testing to prove a biological link so that legal immigration can take place 3.
Wills and Estates. When a person passes away and leaves their estate to blood relatives, there are instances where the linkage must be proven through DNA testing. This prevents long-lost people showing up to claim inheritances under false pretenses.
Adoption. Court-ordered testing may be part of the adoption process in some instances. This might happen in a contested adoption when one biological parent, typically the birth mother, intends to place an infant for adoption, while the other biological parent objects. Other instances of contested adoptions can occur, including divorce, or state-initiated cases of welfare adoption.
Court-ordered DNA test might also be used to establish military benefits, birth certificate name changes, Social Security benefits and tribal enrollment, among others.
The vast majority of court-ordered DNA testing involves establishing parentage. This is important for a number of reasons.
- It legally establishes financial support that must be provided by both parents
- It creates legal documentation that identifies both parents
- It provides access to family medical records and history
- It can establish the right to have health and life insurance from both parents
- It establishes the right to inheritance from both parents
- It establishes the rights to receive Social Security and Veterans benefits
- It allows children to confirm who their parents are at any point in the future
While all of these are important, perhaps the most important of all benefits are that when biological parents are legally proven, it allows courts to make orders for child support, custody and visitation privileges 4. This can be especially critical in a separation or divorce situation.
Without legal parentage being established, a court can’t make orders for these issues. Without parentage, if a parent refuses to pay financial support, the court’s hands are tied until parentage is confirmed.
DNA testing can also protect a father from a woman who claims he is the parent of a child. If there is doubt, DNA testing can be requested to either confirm or deny that fact.
Because each parent passes along DNA to a child, testing the child and the father can establish with almost complete certainty whether a person is a biological father or not.
Mothers who want paternity testing should contact a lawyer who will draft the paternity case. When the case is submitted to the court, a document will be served to the suspected father ordering him to submit a sample through an approved paternity testing facility.
If the father does not comply with the court order, legal action can be taken against the father, including possible jail time.
Fathers also have the right to request paternity testing. In these cases, they are often confident they are the father of a child and want the legal rights to parent that child.
The father can obtain a lawyer and the same process will be completed with the mother named as the defendant. After the results of the paternity test have definitely named the biological father as claimed, the court will allow child custody hearings to take place.
It is possible to establish parentage while the baby is still in utero. The test requires a blood sample from the mother and a cheek swab from the father.
It can be performed as soon as 8 weeks into the pregnancy. This is known as a Non-Invasive Prenatal Paternity Test or NIPP.
Cells from the fetus float freely in the bloodstream of the pregnant mother and paternity testing can develop a DNA profile of the fetal cells and compare the profile to the DNA profile of the presumed father.
If the alleged father is not available or unwilling to do a paternity test, a grandparentage test can also be performed.
It uses the presumed father's parents' DNA to determine if the child is biologically related to the grandparents. This test determines if the child is a descendant of the grandparents and thus a descendant of any of their sons.
What is the step-by-step process?
Court-ordered DNA tests are relatively simple, but there are certain criteria that must be followed.
All court-ordered DNA testing needs to be performed by an American Association of Blood Banks (AABB) accredited laboratory. Samples will need to be collected by a non-biased certified third party DNA collector.
A strict chain of custody protocol must be followed because test results can have life-changing implications.
The chain of custody involves the creation of a chronological documentation or paper trail that shows the collection, transfer, receipt, analysis, storage and disposal of the sample. This ensures that any results are accurate beyond a reasonable doubt as it relates to a particular sample and individual.
If needed, chain of custody documentation can be produced as evidence in a court proceeding. This will make them fully defensible to disprove any allegations of fraud or tampering.
When the sample is collected, a donor’s photographic ID is required along with a consent to the test. Visual monitoring taking place to protect against sample adulteration or substitution.
Samples are either collected by swabbing the inside of a donor’s cheek or through a sample of blood that is drawn.
Barcodes are then placed on the sample and on lab paperwork, along with tamper proof seals on the specimen containers. The contents are them placed into secure packaging and sent to the laboratory for analysis.
The donor is required to also sign lab paperwork to acknowledge that the sample was collected from them.
At the lab, the specimen is checked to make sure it is not tampered with or contaminated. Barcodes and paperwork are scanned into the system allowing for tracking during analysis.
All records are retained and can be examined at a later date if needed.
After the sample has been analyzed, lab personnel review the results and sample information before authorizing the results for reporting purposes. In cases where an additional medical review is required a Medical Review Officer will do so, using the barcode to identify the sample and review the results.
This creates a permanent and traceable link to the person from whom the sample was collected.
Results are then reported back to the requesting agency, generally in a matter of a few days to a few weeks.
How to request a court-ordered DNA test
In cases where a child is born to unmarried parents, designating the biological father as the legal father is not automatic. But if the child is conceived or born while the mother is married, her husband is legally assumed to be the legal father in most instances 5.
To become a legal father, a person can sign an Affidavit of Parentage which is a legal agreement stating the man who signs it is the legal father. Once signed, custody, child support and visitation issues can be worked out.
When a person refuses to sign an affidavit, the mother who believes a man is the father can file a paternity case with the courts. A man can then choose to either agree he is the legal father or DNA testing will be ordered by the courts to determine paternity.
Filing a paternity case requires initial paperwork to be filled out and served on the possible father, payment of fees and court proceedings to see the case through to its conclusion. A mother may also request child support through a state’s child support offices as well.
If there is no legal father, a prosecutor will file a case in the mother’s name and have the court enter a paternity and child support order.
If the man fails to respond to the summons he is served, he can be found in default and ordered to be the legal father. This is known as paternity by default 6.
However, DNA testing can also be done to determine if the man is the biological father. If results show this to be the case, then the courts will issue an Order of Paternity or Order of Filiation depending on the jurisdiction where the case is decided.
Until a man is determined to be the legal father of a child, the court has no power to order custody, child support or parenting time for him or from him.
There are also cases where a father will want to know that he is the biological father so that he can develop a relationship with his child. There are also instances where a man may be asked to pay child support for a child that is not 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 7.
A mother may refuse a paternity DNA test for many reasons. Some are avoiding the forced continuation of abusive relationships while others 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, or the mother may have identified another potential father figure for her child.
Court-ordered DNA test costs
The cost of DNA testing will vary depending on the state where the test is run and the situation surrounding the paternity test. Most tests run around $400 to $500. Some are higher and some are lower.
When a test is conducted as a result of a court order, the costs may actually be lower because the court might have an established service contract with an established DNA testing provider. If court ordered testing is required, it may be best to check with court officials to see if there is a preferred provider for the service.
There are cases where a test may turn up inconclusive results. When this happens, additional testing may be ordered and at a much higher cost than an average swab or blood test.
Paternity tests may sometimes also be ordered with a fetus is still in utero. This test may require chorionic villus sampling or amniocentesis.
These tests come with a very large price tag as the cost of the medical procedure will need to be covered along with the cost of the paternity test. How much the out-of-pocket costs are will vary depending on if insurance or other forms of coverage come into play.
How long does a court-ordered DNA test take?
It depends. The best accredited private labs can turn results around in as little as one or two days. But on the far end of the spectrum, results could take as long as 12 weeks.
The reason for the long turnaround is when the courts contract with a specific provider, they may not be equipped to turn results around as quickly as a private provider. Unless a judge orders it, there is no “rush” option in this circumstance.
This can affect many people who may be in need of a DNA test result quickly because of time-sensitive situations like immigration or family court cases.
If time is of the essence, the best bet for getting results quickly is to contact an accredited lab directly. Be sure to talk directly with a testing coordinator and be specific about what kind of test you want, how quickly you want it and what your budget is.
If you can afford it, you may be able to pay more to get expedited results.
While it is true a family court contracted price may be cheaper, you may suffer from more than just a slow turnaround. Many family courts with DNA testing contracts do not test on the same number of genetic markers as many AABB accredited labs who may not be contracted by a family court.
Many court contracted labs test on fewer markers (10-12 markers). The accuracy is not as high versus private providers where the minimum number of markers used is 18 genetic markers.
Also consider that working with an independent DNA testing service gives you an opportunity to ask questions whereas you will not have an opportunity to ask any questions to a contracted family court DNA contracted lab.
How accurate are court-ordered DNA tests?
No test is 100% accurate, but court-ordered DNA testing is generally presumed to be 99.99% accurate in most cases.
There are two forms of paternity testing results, the exclusion and the inclusion.
Only the exclusion paternity test can be considered 100% accurate. The DNA from the baby is tested against the DNA of the father.
The father is responsible for half of the chromosomes in the baby's DNA. If there are no matching chromosomes, then the father can be excluded with complete certainty.
The results of the inclusion paternity test will tell how likely the father is to be the biological match with the baby. In most cases, the results will appear as a percentage and the best percentage is 99% and above.
The minimum acceptable percentage for paternity testing is 97% probability 8.
What makes a legal DNA test court admissible?
The reason that a legal DNA test is court admissible is because of the strict chain of custody protocols that are followed when the test is performed.
Testing must also be done by a laboratory that has been accredited by the American Association of Blood Banks.
The chain of custody creates a chronological documentation or paper trail that shows the collection, transfer, receipt, analysis, storage and disposal of the sample. This ensures that any results are accurate beyond a reasonable doubt as it relates to a particular sample and individual.
If needed, chain of custody documentation can be produced as evidence in a court proceeding. This will make them fully defensible to disprove any allegations of fraud or tampering.
Can a home DNA test be used in court?
No. While a home DNA test may be just as accurate, court-ordered DNA testing requires that a strict chain of custody be followed and that the test is performed by a lab accredited by the American Association of Blood Banks.
Home DNA testing means that you have collected the sample by yourself in an unsupervised or uncontrolled setting. There are no strict documentation or verification protocols in place and thus the results could easily be challenged in a court of law.
Important things to Consider
Court-ordered testing and paternity laws vary from state to state. If you have questions, it’s best to consult an attorney to have your questions answered.
However, most courts allow the following people to bring a civil lawsuit that will involve court-ordered DNA testing.
- The child’s mother
- A woman expecting a child
- A man claiming to be the biological father of an unborn or already-born child
- A personal representative of a child with legal authority to act on behalf of that child
- The mother and father of an unborn or already-born child, voluntarily acting together
- A state social service agency acting on a claim of child neglect
- A child who has reached the “age of majority,” making a claim within one to five years after reaching that age
When a mother or a father refuses to take a paternity test, it can result in serious legal implications. Refusing can result in a contempt of court charges that can mean fines and/or possible jail time.
In paternity cases, when a man refuses, a judge may simply enter a default judgment and order him to pay child support.
If a mother refuses, because paternity has not been definitively established, she will not be entitled to receive any form of support payments.
It’s also important to pay attention to state mandated deadlines as well. There are limited and specific time frames that DNA testing can be requested and if you are considering testing, it’s imperative that you act as quickly as possible.
DNA testing results can be contested, but when chain of custody is followed, this is a longshot at best. To claim inaccurate results, it must be proven that a different person took the test, that the results have been tampered with, or in paternity cases, that a father can provide proof of sterility or infertility.
List of AABB accredited laboratories across the U.S.
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