A bill that would help eager dads secure parental rights over their children is advancing in the House after clearing its first House hurdle with uniform praise.

Members of the House Civil Justice Subcommittee voted unanimously for the measure (HB 663), which aims to remove barriers between fathers and their biological children.

“This is not the deadbeat dad bill,” said Miami Gardens Democratic Rep. Christopher Benjamin, the measure’s sponsor. “This is the good dad bill.”

Benjamin, who last year successfully sponsored related legislation enabling unwed fathers to gain paternal rights with the mother’s consent, said HB 663 is meant to further modernize Florida’s parental laws.

In a “bygone era,” he said, a child born out of wedlock was called a bastard, a nasty designation accompanied by myriad “social indicators” of ill repute. As something of a fix at the time, lawmakers decided that in any case where a child was born to a married couple, the husband in that union was legally the child’s father regardless of actual paternity.

“We did this because we didn’t want the child to be considered a bastard. We wanted the child to be considered a child born of that marriage,” he said. “(But) the nuclear family is not the only family that we recognize in our society today. We recognize that fathers who are not married to the mother have rights too.”

HB 663, if passed, would provide that a man is presumed to be the legal father of a child if he is married to the child’s biological mother at the time of birth or if existing state statutes provide for his parentage.

It also clarifies the process by which a child, the child’s mother or a man who has a “reasonable and well-founded belief” that he is the child’s biological father can petition a court to determine paternity. Further, the measure provides for the establishment, adoption and modification of a parenting plan, including time-sharing and child support, to be shared among all legal parents.

If a court determines it is best for the parental rights of the mother’s husband to be terminated and given to the biological father of the child, the child’s last name must be changed to that of the biological father.

At all times, the bill says, the court must keep the child’s best interest as its “foremost concern.”

Kim Rommell, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and member of the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar, said her organization has seen many cases in which Benjamin’s bill would have had significant bearing.

“It’s really hard to look that dad in the face and say, ‘I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do to help you. Our law does not provide for your situation. You can’t disestablish (or) assert paternity under … statute, so you’re just out of luck,’” she said. “This bill addresses that situation, that gap.”

Tampa Republican Rep. Traci Koster, a marital and family law lawyer by trade, commended Benjamin for “spearheading paternity rights.”

“It’s the right step in changing the narrative about fathers and the importance of fathers in their children’s lives,” she said.

HB 663, which would go into effect July 1, has two more committee stops before reaching a floor vote.

An identical Senate companion (SB 1402) that Miami Gardens Democratic Sen. Shevrin Jones is carrying in the Legislature’s upper chamber awaits a hearing before the first of three committees to which Senate President Kathleen Passidomo referred it last week.

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