Human Nature

, Volume 28, Issue 2, pp 168–200 | Cite as

Establishment of Legal Paternity for Children of Unmarried American Women

Trade-Offs in Male Commitment to Paternal Investment
  • Kermyt G. AndersonEmail author


The establishment of a legal father for children of unmarried parents reflects both high paternity confidence and male willingness to commit to paternal investment. Whether an unmarried man voluntarily acknowledges paternity after a child is born has important consequences for both the mother and child. This paper brings to bear a life history perspective on paternity establishment, noting that men face trade-offs between mating and parental effort and that women will adjust their investment in children based on expected male investment. I predict that paternity establishment will be more likely when the mother has high socioeconomic status, when maternal health is good, and when the child is male, low parity, or a singleton (versus multiple) birth. I further predict that establishment of paternity will be associated with increased maternal investment in offspring, resulting in healthier babies with higher birthweights who are more likely to be breastfed. These predictions are tested using data on 5.4 million births in the United States from 2009 through 2013. Overall the results are consistent with the hypothesis that the trade-offs men face between reproductive and parental investment influence whether men voluntarily acknowledge paternity when a child is born.


Paternity establishment Paternal investment Birth certificates Pregnancy outcomes Life history theory 



I thank Kathrine Starkweather, Mary Shenk, and several anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on the manuscript, and Joanna Scheib for information about women using donor insemination. This research was supported in part by NIH U54-GM104938-01A1 (Judith James: Lead PI).


  1. Alexander, R. D. (1974). The evolution of social behavior. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 5, 325–383.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Almond, D., & Edlund, L. (2008). Son-biased sex ratios in the 2000 United States census. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(15), 5681–5682.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Almond, D., & Rossin-Slater, M. (2013). Paternity acknowledgment in 2 million birth records from Michigan. PloS One, 8(7), e70042.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Ananat, E. O., & Michaels, G. (2008). The effect of marital breakup on the income distribution of women with children. Journal of Human Resources, 43(3), 611–629.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Anderson, K. G. (2000). The life histories of American stepfathers in evolutionary perspective. Human Nature, 11, 307–333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Anderson, K. G. (2006). How well does paternity confidence match actual paternity? Results from worldwide nonpaternity rates. Current Anthropology, 48(3), 511–518.Google Scholar
  7. Anderson, K. G. (2011). Does paying child support reduce men’s subsequent remarriage and fertility? Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(2), 90–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Anderson, K. G., Kaplan, H., & Lancaster, J. B. (1999). Paternal care by genetic fathers and stepfathers I: reports from Albuquerque men. Evolution and Human Behavior, 20, 405–431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Anderson, K. G., Kaplan, H., & Lancaster, J. B. (2006). Demographic correlates of paternity confidence and pregnancy outcomes among Albuquerque men. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 131(4), 560–571.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Anderson, K. G., Kaplan, H., & Lancaster, J. B. (2007). Confidence of paternity, divorce, and investment in children by Albuquerque men. Evolution and Human Behavior, 28(1), 1–10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Anderson, K. G., Spicer, P., & Peercy, M. T. (2016). Obesity, diabetes, and birth outcomes among American Indians and Alaska natives. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 20, 2548–2556. doi: 10.1007/s10995-016-2080-3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Argys, L. M., & Peters, H. E. (2001). Interactions between unmarried fathers and their children: the role of paternity establishment and child support policies. The American Economic Review, 91(2), 125–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Bedard, K., & Deschênes, O. (2005). Sex preferences, marital dissolution, and the economic status of women. Journal of Human Resources, 40(2), 411–434.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Bellamy, L., Casas, J. P., Hingorani, A. D., & Williams, D. (2009). Type 2 diabetes mellitus after gestational diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet, 373(9677), 1773–1779.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Blabey, M. H., & Gessner, B. D. (2009). Three maternal risk factors associated with elevated risk of postneonatal mortality among Alaska Native population. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 13, 222–230.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Borgerhoff Mulder, M. (1992). Reproductive decisions. In E. A. Smith & B. Winterhalder (Eds.), Evolutionary ecology and human behavior (pp. 339–374). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  17. Brewer, C. J., & Balen, A. H. (2010). The adverse effects of obesity on conception and implantation. Reproduction, 140, 347–364.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Bronte-Tinkew, J., Horowitz, A., & Scott, M. E. (2009a). Fathering with multiple partners: links to children’s well-being in early childhood. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 608–631.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Bronte-Tinkew, J., Scott, M. E., Horowitz, A., & Lilja, E. (2009b). Pregnancy intentions during the transition to parenthood and links to coparenting for first-time fathers of infants. Parenting: Science and Practice, 9, 1–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Bryant, A. S., Worjoloh, A., Caughey, A. B., & Washington, A. E. (2010). Racial/ethnic disparities in obstetric outcomes and care: prevalence and determinants. American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 202(4), 335–343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Center for Research on Child Wellbeing. (2007). Parents’ relationship status five years after a non-marital birth. Fragile Families Research Brief 39. Princeton and New York: Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, Princeton University, and Social Indicators Survey Center, Columbia University. Available online at
  22. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) (2015a). Breastfeeding among U.S. Children Born 2002–2012, CDC National Immunization Surveys. Accessed 08 Jan 2016.
  23. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) (2015b). STD Screening Recommendations — 2015 STD Treatment Guidelines. Accessed 25 Jul 2016.
  24. Chase, I. D. (1980). Cooperative and noncooperative behavior in animals. American Naturalist, 115, 827–857.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Child and Family Research Partnership (2014). Who establishes paternity? A study of unmarried parents. CFRP Policy Brief B.003.0114. Austin: University of Texas.Google Scholar
  26. Chin, J. R., Murtaugh, M. A., & Silver, R. (2014). Obesity implications for women’s reproductive health. Current Epidemiological Reports, 1, 17–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Cisco, J. (2017). Who supports breastfeeding mothers? An investigation of kin investment in the U.S. Human Nature, 28(2). doi: 10.1007/s12110-017-9286-y.
  28. DeBruine, L. M., Hahn, A. C., & Jones, B. C. (2016). Perceiving infant faces. Current Opinion in Psychology, 7, 87–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Devlin, H. M., Desai, J., & Walaszek, A. (2009). Reviewing performance of birth certificate and hospital discharge data to identify births complicated by maternal diabetes. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 13, 660–666.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Edin, K., & Kefalas, M. (2005). Promises I can keep: Why poor women put motherhood before marriage. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  31. Emmott, E. H., & Mace, R. (2015). Practical support from fathers and grandmothers is associated with lower levels of breastfeeding in the UK millennium cohort study. PloS One, 10, e0133547.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Feldman, P. J., Dunkel-Schetter, C., Sandman, C. A., & Wadhwa, P. D. (2000). Maternal social support predicts birth weight and fetal growth in human pregnancy. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62, 715–725.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Finer, L. B., & Zolna, M. R. (2014). Shifts in intended and unintended pregnancies in the United States, 2001–2008. American Journal of Public Health, Supplement 1, 104(S1), S43–S48.Google Scholar
  34. Fujimoto, W., Samoa, R., & Wotring, A. (2013). Gestational diabetes in high-risk populations. Clinical Diabetes, 31(2), 90–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Gaudino, J. A., Jenkins, B., & Rochat, R. W. (1999). No fathers’ names: a risk factor for infant mortality in the state of Georgia, USA. Social Science and Medicine, 48, 253–265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Goldenberg, R. L., & Culhane, J. F. (2007). Low birth weight in the United States. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 85(S), 584S–590S.Google Scholar
  37. Grall, T. (2013). Custodial mothers and fathers and their child support: 2011. Current Population Reports, Report Number P60–246. U.S. Census Bureau.Google Scholar
  38. Gray, P. B., & Anderson, K. G. (2010). Fathers: The evolution of human paternal care. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Guzzo, K. B. (2009). Paternity establishment for men’s nonmarital births. Population Research and Policy Review, 28, 853–872.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Guzzo, K. B., & Furstenberg Jr., F. (2007). Multipartnered fertility among American men. Demography, 44, 583–601.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Hawkes, K. (1992). Sharing and collective action. In E. A. Smith & B. Winterhalder (Eds.), Evolutionary ecology and human behavior (pp. 269–300). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  42. Hill, E. M., & Low, B. S. (1992). Contemporary abortion patters: a life history approach. Ethology and Sociobiology, 13, 35–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Hogue, C. J. R., & Silver, R. M. (2011). Racial and ethnic disparities in United States: stillbirth rates: trends, risk factors, and research needs. Seminars in Perinatology, 35(4), 221–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Hrdy, S. B. (2000). Mother Nature: Maternal instincts and how they shape the human species. London: Ballantine Books.Google Scholar
  45. Hrdy, S. B. (2009). Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Huang, C.-C., & Han, K.-Q. (2012). Child support enforcement in the United States: has policy made a difference? Children and Youth Services Review, 34(4), 622–627.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Iliodromiti, S., Mackay, D. F., Smith, G. C. S., Pell, J. P., & Nelson, S. M. (2014). Apgar score and the risk of cause-specific infant mortality: a population-based cohort study. Lancet, 384(9956), 1749–1755.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Johnson, B., Thorn, B., McGill, B., Suchman, A., Mendelson, M., Patlan, K.L., Freeman, B., Gotlieb, R., & Connor, P. (2013). WIC participant and program characteristics (2012). Prepared by Insight Policy Research under Contract No. AG-3198-C-11-0010. Alexandria, VA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service.Google Scholar
  49. Kaplan, H. (1996). A theory of fertility and parental investment in traditional and modern human societies. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 39, 91–135.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Kinsley, B. (2007). Achieving better outcomes in pregnancies complicated by type 1 and type 2 diabetes mellitus. Clinical Therapy, 29(D), S153–S160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Korenman, S., Kaestner, R., & Joyce, T. (2002). Consequences for infants of parental disagreement in pregnancy intention. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 34(4), 198–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Kotelchuck, M. (1994). An evaluation of the Kessner adequacy of prenatal care index and a proposed adequacy of prenatal care utilization index. American Journal of Public Health, 84(9), 1414–1420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Kramer, K. L. (2010). Cooperative breeding and its significance to the demographic success of humans. Annual Review of Anthropology, 39, 417–436.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Labbok, M. H. (2013). Breastfeeding: population-based perspectives. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 60(1), 11–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Lee, A. J., Hiscock, R. J., Wein, P., Walker, S. P., & Permezel, M. (2007). Gestational diabetes mellitus: clinical predictors and long-term risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care, 30(4), 878–883.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Lin, I.-F. (2000). Perceived fairness and compliance with child support obligations. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 62, 388–398.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Low, B. S. (1978). Environmental uncertainty and the parental strategies of marsupials and placentals. American Naturalist, 112, 197–213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Lu, M. C., & Halfon, N. (2003). Racial and ethnic disparities in birth outcomes: a life-course perspective. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 7(1), 13–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Luke, B., Brown, M. B., & Spector, L. G. (2015). Validation of infertility treatment and assisted reproductive technology use on the birth certificate: a US study in eight states. Fertility and Sterility, 104(3), Supplement, e207.Google Scholar
  60. MacDorman, M. F. (2011). Race and ethnic disparities in fetal mortality, preterm birth, and infant mortality in the United States: an overview. Seminars in Perinatology, 35(4), 200–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Manning, W. D., & Smock, P. J. (1999). New families and nonresident father-child visitation. Social Forces, 78, 87–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Manning, W. D., Stewart, S. D., & Smock, P. J. (2003). The complexity of fathers’ parenting responsibilities and involvement with nonresident children. Journal of Family Issues, 24, 645–667.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Martin, J. A., Wilson, E. C., Osterman, M. J. K., Saadi, E. W., Sutton, S. R., & Hamilton, B. E. (2013). Assessing the quality of medical and health data from the 2003 birth certificate revision: Results from two states. National Vital Statistics Reports 62(2). Hyattsville: National Center for Health Statistics.Google Scholar
  64. Martin, J. A., Hamilton, B. E., Osterman, M. J. A., Curtin, S. C., & Mathews, T.J. (2015). Births: final data for 2013. National Vital Statistics Reports 64(1). Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics.Google Scholar
  65. Maynard Smith, J. (1977). Parental investment: a prospective analysis. Animal Behavior, 25, 1–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Metzger, B. E. (2007). Long-term outcomes in mothers diagnosed with gestational diabetes mellitus and their offspring. Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology, 50(4), 972–979.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Miller, C., & Garfinkel, I. (1999). The determinants of paternity establishment and child support award rates among unmarried women. Population Research and Policy Review, 18, 237–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Mincy, R., Garfinkel, I., & Nepomnyaschy, L. (2005). In-hospital paternity establishment and father involvement in fragile families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67(3), 611–626.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Murray, A. L., Rosengard, C., Weitzen, S., Raker, C. A., & Phipps, M. G. (2012). Demographic and relationship predictors of paternity establishment for infants born to adolescent mothers. J Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, 25(5), 322–327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. National Center for Health Statistics (2010). User guide to the 2009 natality public use file. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Available online at
  71. National Center for Health Statistics (2011). User guide to the 2010 natality public use file. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Available online at
  72. National Center for Health Statistics (2012). User guide to the 2011 natality public use file. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Available online at
  73. National Center for Health Statistics (2013). User guide to the 2012 natality public use file. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Available online at
  74. National Center for Health Statistics (2014). User guide to the 2013 natality public use file. Hyattsville: National Center for Health Statistics. Available online at
  75. Neifert, M., & Bunik, M. (2013). Overcoming clinical barriers to exclusive breastfeeding. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 60, 115–145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Nepomnyaschy, L., & Garfinkel, I. (2010). Child support enforcement and fathers’ contributions to their nonmarital children. Social Service Review, 84(3), 341–380.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Nettle, D. (2008). Why do some dads get more involved than others? Evidence from a large British cohort. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29(6), 416–423.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Ngui, E. M., Cortright, A. L., & Blair, K. (2009). An investigation of paternity status and other factors associated with racial and ethnic disparities in birth outcomes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Maternal and Child Health Journal, 13, 467–478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Ngui, E. M., Cortright, A. L., & Michalski, K. (2014). Relationship of paternity status, welfare reform period, and racial/ethnic disparities in infant mortality. American Journal of Men’s Health, 9(5), 350–359.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Office of Child Support Enforcement (CSS) (2016). FY 2013 annual report to congress. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services. Available online at
  81. Osborne, C., & Dillon, D. (2014). Dads on the dotted line: a look at the in-hospital paternity establishment process. Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk, 5(2) article 10.Google Scholar
  82. Puder, K. S., Gonik, B., & Schrauben, E. (2003). Paternity establishment: variables associated with failed implementation. Primary Care Update for OB/GYNS, 10(5), 258–260.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Roff, D. A. (1992). The evolution of life histories. New York: Chapman and Hall.Google Scholar
  84. Roland, J. M., Murphy, H. R., Ball, V., Northcote-Wright, J., & Temple, R. C. (2005). The pregnancies of women with type 2 diabetes: poor outcomes but opportunities for improvement. Diabetic Medicine, 22(12), 1774–1777.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Scheib, J. E., Riordan, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2000). Choosing between anonymous and identity-release sperm donors: recipient and donor characteristics. Reproductive Technologies, 10, 50–58.Google Scholar
  86. Sear, R. (2016). Beyond the nuclear family: an evolutionary perspective on parenting. Current Opinion in Psychology, 7, 98–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Sear, R., & Mace, R. (2008). Who keeps children alive? A review of the effects of kin on child survival. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29, 1–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Section on Breastfeeding. (2012). Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics, 129, e827–e841.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Seltzer, J. A. (1991). Relationships between fathers and children who live apart: the father’s role after separation. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53, 79–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Shah, M. K., Gee, R. E., & Theall, K. P. (2014). Partner support and impact on birth outcomes among teen pregnancies in the United States. Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology, 27(1), 14–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Shenk, M. K., Towner, M. C., Kress, H. C., & Alam, N. (2013). A model comparison approach shows stronger support for economic models of fertility decline. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110(20), 8045–8050.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Smuts, B. B., & Gubernick, D. J. (1992). Male-infant relationships in nonhuman primates: paternal investment or mating effort? In B. S. Hewlett (Ed.), Father-child relations: cultural and biosocial contexts (pp. 1–30). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  93. StataCorp. (2015). Stata statistical software: release 14. College Station, TX: StataCorp LP.Google Scholar
  94. Stearns, S. C. (1992). The evolution of life histories. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  95. Trivers, R. L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual selection and the descent of man 1871–1971 (pp. 136–179). Chicago: Aldine.Google Scholar
  96. Unger, J. (2012). Diabetes management in primary care (2nd ed.). New York: Lippincott.Google Scholar
  97. Wendland, C. L., Byrn, F., & Hill, C. (1996). Donor insemination: a comparison of lesbian couples, heterosexual couples and single women. Fertility and Sterility, 65(4), 764–770.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Whincup, P. H., Kaye, S. J., Owen, C. G., Huxley, R., Cook, D. G., et al. (2008). Birth weight and risk of type 2 diabetes. Journal of the American Medical Association, 300(24), 2886–2897.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  99. Wilson, B. J., Watson, M. S., Prescott, G. J., Sunderland, S., Campbell, D. M., Hannaford, P., & Smith, W. C. S. (2003). Hypertensive diseases of pregnancy and risk of hypertension and stroke in later life: results from cohort study. British Medical Journal, 326(7394), 845–852.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of OklahomaNormanUSA

Personalised recommendations