Difference Between Legitimate and Illegitimate Child

Legitimate vs Illegitimate Child

Identifying the difference between the terms legitimate and illegitimate child is not difficult. Indeed, many of us are somewhat familiar with the meaning of both terms. Essentially, they refer to a lawful child or unlawful child. However, given the harshness of the term ‘unlawful’ or ‘illegitimate,’ particularly with reference to a child, it is best to understand the original meaning of these terms. Keep in mind that owing to the injustice and discrimination that resulted from the concept of illegitimacy, the term illegitimate child is rarely used. Instead, terms such as ‘natural child,’ ‘extra-marital child ’ or ‘non-marital child’ are used.

Who is a Legitimate Child?

Traditionally, the term legitimate child is defined as a child conceived or born during a marriage or to parents who are legally married to each other, and has complete filial rights and obligations by birth. This means that the child was lawfully begotten. The reason behind the expression ‘lawfully begotten’ was because marriage was considered a sacred and lawful union. A child not born during a marriage was considered unlawful, as we will examine below.

In ancient legal systems, a legitimate child was automatically granted a status of legitimacy. This status of legitimacy entitled the child to certain rights and privileges. Thus, if a child’s parent dies intestate (without a will), the child has the legal right to inherit the property of his/her parents. Other rights include the right to use the surname of the father or mother, receive monetary and/or other forms of support and rights in relation to inheritance and/or succession.

Difference Between Legitimate and Illegitimate Child

Legitimate child is a child conceived or born during a marriage

Who is an Illegitimate Child?

In simple terms, an illegitimate child is a child that was born out of wedlock or outside of a marriage. Traditionally, the term is defined as a child whose parents were not married to each other at the time of his/her conception or birth. An illegitimate child was automatically accorded the status of illegitimacy. This means that in the eyes of the law and society, the child was illegal or unlawful. Centuries ago, legal systems would consider children born out of marriage, or in a bigamous relationship, or in a marriage that was later annulled, as illegitimate.

Early Roman and English law denied and/or restricted the rights of children who were born out of wedlock. They were branded as children belonging to no one due to their status of illegitimacy. This status of illegitimacy was attached with certain consequences, particularly in a legal context. Hence, the reason behind the usage of the term illegitimate child. A child’s illegitimate status denied him/her the rights available to a legitimate child. Thus , an illegitimate child could not inherit his/her father’s property, could not use his surname and was not entitled to paternal support. Further, as per early law traditions, the father of the illegitimate child was not under obligation to provide support.

 Legitimate vs Illegitimate Child

Illegitimate child is a child born outside of a marriage

Today, however, the situation has changed drastically and is more favorable to children born out of wedlock. Many jurisdictions have recognised the rights of an illegitimate child while some nations recognise that an illegitimate child has the same rights as a legitimate child. Traditionally, the rights of an illegitimate child include the right to bear the surname of the mother, right to inherit property and receive support from the father. In the United States, some states recognise a legitimate and illegitimate child as both having equal rights. However, other US states maintain that an illegitimate child can only inherit property if the father had specifically stated it in his will. Some states require that the child present evidence of paternity to claim support and/or other rights. Generally, however, most legal jurisdictions abide by the principle that the relationship between a parent and achild should extend equally to each child irrespective of the parents’marital status. Other rights granted to an illegitimate child include the right to receive income from social security, government, or pension schemes or even from a life insurance policy in the event of the parents’ death. Further, it is important to note that many jurisdictions have also recognised children born during a marriage that is void or voidable, or children born in a marriage that is later annulled, as legitimate. In fact, today, many countries have accepted and recognised a concept called ‘legitimation.’ This is a process by which an illegitimate child is ‘legitimized’ owing to the subsequent marriage of the child’s parents, or when the parents are treated as legally married in certain circumstances. In such a case, the child has been conferred with the same legal status as that of a legitimate child.

What is the difference between Legitimate and Illegitimate Child?

• Definition of Legitimate and Illegitimate Child:

• A legitimate child is a child born during a marriage or to parents who are legally married.

• An illegitimate child is a child born out of wedlock or to parents who are not married.

• Inheritance:

• A legitimate child is entitled to inherit his/her parents’ property and receive support.

• Traditionally, an illegitimate child was recognised as not having any legal status and , therefore, not recognised before the law. Thus, an illegitimate child had no legal rights. This situation has changed. Now, an illegitimate child enjoys the same rights conferred upon a legitimate child.


Images Courtesy:

  1. Boy via Pixabay (Public Domain)
  2. Child in Straw Hat (1886) via Wikicommons (Public Domain)