The legal and civil rights of
illegitimate children has changed drastically over the past century. Until the 1920s,
most countries had been using the same legal rulings for dealing with common
problems that illegitimate children faced. These problems ranged from
inheriting property from an unwed parent to getting financial support. Old laws
tried to punish the unwed parents of illegitimate children by punishing the
children themselves. For centuries this idea resulted in many children being
treated unfairly by society.
Having an illegitimate child was
an embarrassment as well, although it was mostly the women who had to deal with
the embarrassment. Since there was no real way to legally force paternityacknowledgement, the unwed
mothers were often left to take care of the child on their own as well as bear
the brunt of the humiliation that accompanied having a child out of wedlock.
Having children out of wedlock was unheard of for many people and any woman
unfortunate enough to get pregnant would often be forced to relinquish care to
a married relative or give the baby up for adoption
If a father wanted to leave
something to an illegitimate child, he had to specifically state so in his
will. No propertywould automatically go to the
illegitimate child, even if the father had acknowledged paternity. Several
Supreme Courtrulings in the late 1900s
changed this, most notably Levy v. Louisiana. In that case, the
illegitimate children of a woman filed a wrongful death suit on her behalf and
were denied access to the funds. The ruling went in favor of the illegitimate
Today, inheritance laws are the
same for children born out of wedlock or born in wedlock. As long as a child is
legally acknowledged by the father, then a marriage licenseis unnecessary. If a father
refuses to assert paternity, then a woman can have a DNA testdone. If the results come back
finding an individual is the biological father of the child, than he is legally
obligated to supportthe child.
Illegitimate boys were
sometimes referred to as whoresons. Although the actual word never technically
entered into legal statute, it was used in common law which means that it was
used in more of an informal rather than legal way. The word bastardy was also
used when filing a motion to request legal paternal acknowledgment. The action
was called a bastardy proceeding. Without paternal acknowledgement, receiving
financial support for a child is impossible.
Legitimacy once only referred
to the marital status of the parents at the time of birth. As laws governing
illegitimate children progressed, being legitimated became easier. Canon laws,
or the laws governing the Catholic Church, began allowing for a child’s
legitimacy status to change if the parents married within a year of the birth.
Becoming legitimate in today’s
society involves a father acknowledging paternity. Once a father acknowledges
paternity, they become an individual’s legal father, and with the new legal
status, the child is considered legitimate. Laws throughout the years have
changed to allow for children to achieve legitimacy if their parents married
later in time, so long as they could have legally married at the time of
conception. Loosely, this translated into making sure that children born into
extramarital affairs do not achieve legitimacy. Later, this progressed to allow
children to achieve legitimacy if their parents married at all, regardless of
what their status was at the time of conception.
Besides hereditary titles and citizenship status,
illegitimate and legitimate children are treated equally under the law. This
was no easy feat to achieve. For years, people have fought to give equal rights
to all children, regardless of legitimacy status. Several Supreme Court rulings
in the 1900s finally changed the face of current legitimacy laws.
major breakthrough for children born to unwed parents came when the Legitimacy
Act of 1926 was passed. This granted legitimacy to all children who had parents
that married at a later date, as long as the parents would have been legally
able to marry at the time of the child’s conception. This law was to be updated
three more times. The final version of it was passed in 1987 and abolished all
remaining laws that favored legitimate children over illegitimate ones, except
concerning royal hereditary titles or citizenship status.