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FAMILY LAW: Paternity by Estoppel Enforced When in Best Interests of Child

  
  
  

The Lawletter Vol 36 No 10

Sandra Thomas, Senior Attorney, National Legal Research Group

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has very recently addressed the issue of paternity by estoppel, examining the issue in the context of a complaint for child support.  K.E.M. v. P.C.S., No. 67 MAP 2011, 2012 WL 573635 (Pa. Feb. 21, 2012).  The mother of the minor child in that case filed a complaint seeking child support from the man she believed to be the biological father, P.C.S.  He responded with a motion to dismiss, relying on the mother's intact marriage to her husband to establish a presumption of the husband's paternity, and further relying on the husband's assumptions of parental responsibilities as implicating paternity by estoppel.

At a hearing on the motion, the mother testified that she had told her husband of her affair with P.C.S. and that the husband did not wish to be identified as the father on the birth certificate.  Genetic testing excluded the husband as the biological father of the child.  The mother testified that after she had received those results, she had asked P.C.S. to submit to testing.  He refused, although he acknowledged the child as his.  The mother testified that during the four years of the child's life, P.C.S. had undertaken some degree of involvement in the child's life, giving the mother money to buy Christmas presents, providing unsigned cards and gifts of his own, visiting parks and playgrounds, and providing the mother with a cell phone to assure her and the child's safety.  The mother testified that the child referred to both the husband and P.C.S. as "Daddy."  Id. at *1.

By the time of trial, P.C.S. had ended the relationship with the mother; at about the same time, the husband separated from the mother.  The trial court granted P.C.S.'s motion to dismiss the support action, finding that the presumption of paternity was controlling and, in the alternative, that the husband should be regarded as the child's father under the doctrine of paternity by estoppel.  The intermediate appellate court affirmed, differing with the trial court on the issue of whether the presumption of paternity should apply in a case in which the marriage was not being protected because the husband knew that the child was not his, but agreeing that paternity by estoppel applied, based on the husband's actions of holding the child out as his own and providing support.   The Pennsylvania Supreme Court allowed an appeal to consider application of the doctrine of paternity by estoppel to the case.

The mother argued that the child already knew P.C.S. as his father and that there was therefore "no concern over deleterious impact from a judicial determination to such effect," and questioned the "application of a legal fiction in a circumstance in which all parties involved fully apprehend the true state of affairs, a circumstance which is becoming increasingly common."  Id.  The mother also "asks that Pennsylvania law be modified to consider genetic testing, along with other factors, in determining paternity on a case-by-case basis."  Id.

In his argument, P.C.S. focused on the husband's continued participation in the marriage and the relationship with the child during the first four years of the child's life.  P.C.S. argued that application of paternity by estoppel remains appropriate "because it recognizes the importance, in a child's life, of a 'psychological father' who has provided nurturing and life's necessities."  Id.

In its decision, the supreme court stated that "we believe there remains a role for paternity by estoppel in the Pennsylvania common law, in the absence of definitive legislative involvement."  Id. at *8.  The court noted that in the case before it, neither P.C.S. nor the husband had testified at the trial regarding his relationship with the child, and concluded that "it is our considered view that the determination of paternity by estoppel should be better informed according to the actual best interests of the child, rather than by rote pronouncements grounded merely on the longevity of abstractly portrayed (and perhaps largely ostensible) parental relationships."  Id. at *9.  The court also noted that it had the authority to appoint a guardian ad litem to advocate the child's best interests "in concrete terms," an action which had not been taken in the case.  Id. at *10.

The court concluded: "In summary, paternity by estoppel continues to pertain in Pennsylvania, but it will apply only where it can be shown, on a developed record, that it is in the best interests of the involved child."  Id. at *11.  The court remanded the case to the trial court to further develop the factual record.

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