Friday, July 13, 2007 at 01:18PM
Site Administrator in Legal Articles

By Fred Morganroth

The Doctorine of Equitable Estoppel In Paternity Cases

For six years the little girl called him "Daddy". He showed her the love and affection a father shows to a daughter.

Then suddenly, the father, known as "Mr. G." to the Pennsylvania court system, discovered that someone else had really been the child's biological father. He attempted to cut off all ties to the child and the child's mother with whom he had lived with but never married. He also refused to support the child.

It appears that in 1987 he acknowledged paternity of the child thinking he was the father because he had been the mother's only boyfriend when she got pregnant. The child also resembled him.

Two years later, blood tests confirmed another man's paternity convincing Mr. G. that he was not the biological father. "Ms. T" the mother, claims she had told Mr. G. that she had been dating another man when the child was conceived, a fact "Mr. G" denies.

The question before the Erie County, Pennsylvania Court concerns "Mr. G's" obligation to continue to support the child he believed was his after the blood tests revealed that he was not. The case is L.Y.T. v J.L.G., No. 920187, Erie County Court of Common Pleas, Pennsylvania (11/18/95).

Pennsylvania statutory law, Section 5102, provides in part (b):

"(b) Determination of paternity -- For purposes of prescribing benefits to children born out of wedlock by, from and through the father, paternity shall be determined by anyone of the following ways:
  1. If the parents of a child born out of wedlock have married each other.
  2. If, during the lifetime of the child, it is determined by clear and convincing evidence that the father openly holds out the child to be his and either receives the child into his home or provides support for the child.
  3. If there is clear and convincing evidence that the man was the father of the child, which may include a prior court determination of paternity.
The Erie Court held that "Mr. G." was estopped from denying support to the child he had mistakenly acknowledged as his issue because he had held himself out to be the father of, and had supported the child.

This decision rendered "Mr. G" an equitable parent who was helpless to deny the paternity of the child. The Court also found that "Mr. G" was not defrauded by "Ms. T" either before or after the child's birth since she told "Mr. G" about her dating another man.

The Court found the 1993 and 1995 blood tests that excluded "Mr. G" as the biological parent to be irrelevant.

The Court stated:

"Absent any overriding equities in favor of the putative father, such as fraud, the law cannot permit a party to renounce even an assumed duty of parentage when by doing so the innocent child would be victimized. Relying upon the representation of the parental relationship, a child naturally and normally extends his love and affection to the putative parent. The representation of parentage inevitably obscures the identity and whereabouts of the natural father, so that the child will be denied the love, affection and support of the natural father. As time wears on, the fiction of parentage reduces the likelihood that the child will ever have the opportunity of knowing or receiving the love of his natural father. While the law cannot prohibit the putative father from informing the child of their true relationship, it can prohibit him from employing the sanctions of the law to avoid the obligations which their assumed relationship would otherwise impose."

Similar cases have arisen in other states including Iowa, Arizona, Minnesota and California in recent years.

Our own State of Michigan has not dealt with a case on the same set of facts but has applied the doctrine of equitable parental estoppel in several other situations.

The Michigan Supreme Court in the 1977 case of Serafin v Serafin, 401 Mich 629, 258 NW2d 461, declared that parties to a divorce action have the right to challenge the legitimacy of a child born in wedlock only by providing "clear and convincing" evidence of impotency or non access. It would appear that a challenge on any other basis is irrelevant.

The case of Johnson v Johnson, 93 Mich App 415 (1979) involved a child conceived out of wedlock. The mother told the alleged father that she was pregnant and they married. The child was born after the wedding and took the husband's last name. The husband was also listed as the father on the child's birth certificate and until an action for divorce was filed by him, he supported and cared for the child. He sought, in the divorce, to prove he was not the father of the child.

Using the Serafin rule, the Court applied the strong presumption that any child conceived or born in wedlock prior to the commencement of an action for divorce is legitimate.

The Court went on to say that the fact the child was born during wedlock, foreclosed any support action against any third party.

The Court upheld the estoppel doctrine when it stated at page 419:

"Even if plaintiff were not the biological father of the child, by marrying defendant he forecloses any action by her to seek support from the child's biological father. Actions under the paternity act are authorized only where the woman was unmarried from the conception to the date of birth of the child."

The doctrine was further advanced in Johns v Johns, 178 Mich App 71 (1989) when the court of Appeals declared:

"It is against the public policy of Michigan for a parent, whether natural or equitable, to suddenly disclaim parenthood during a custody battle. Where, as here, a father rears a child as his own, he is estopped to deny the child is his."

The Court for this reason, would not let the father who had previously held out the child as his own to deny his status as an equitable father and to escape his child support obligations.

In a recent unpublished 1995 opinion our Michigan Court of Appeals, in Campagna v Campagna, No 170746 (10/6/95) did not allow a father to escape his support obligations to a child born out of wedlock. The alleged father married the mother after the birth of the child. Two years later the parties divorced and he agreed at that time to an acknowledgment and support order. Mother and child moved to California with father having visitation.

A current custody order was entered that gave mother physical custody during in school year and father physical custody during the summer. Neither party was to pay support to the other.

Fifteen months later, mother filed a motion to set aside the custody arrangement and, for the first time, claimed that her ex-husband was not the biological father of the child and she sought to set aside the previous acknowledgment and support order.

The trial court's denial of the motion was upheld by the court of Appeals who stated:

"We are deeply troubled by plaintiff's actions in this case. Plaintiff, on more than one occasion, has sworn under oath that defendant is the father of the child. It was not until nearly nine years after the child was born that plaintiff claimed that defendant was not the father of the child. During that time, defendant diligently made his child support payments and helped to raise the child. Plaintiff's current claim that "she may have simply been mistaken" in indicating that defendant was the father is incredulous. We are not convinced that the circumstances of this case mandate setting aside the acknowledgement and order for support to achieve justice. Altman v Altman, 197 Mich App 467, 479; 495 NW2d 826 (1992).

Under Michigan law a man has no standing to challenge paternity when the child is born to a woman married to another man. Girard v Wagenmaker, 437 Mich 231 (1991). In fact, standing can only exist if the child was both conceived and born out of wedlock. Spielmaker v Lee, 205 Mich App 51 (1994). See also Afshar v Zamarron, 209 Mich App 86 (1995).

Both the Pennsylvania and Michigan cases leave us with the following:

*(a)If you hold yourself out to be a child's father, the subsequent discovery that you're not, will not permit you to deny paternity or terminate support.

*(b)If a child is born during wedlock, absence proof of impotency or non access, this fact will make the husband the father for all time and will bar actions for child support against a third party who is subsequently found to be the biological father.

*(c)A biological third party is unable to challenge paternity or to gain access to a child conceived or born during wedlock.

*(d)When the doctrine of equitable estoppel is applied, a blood test is no longer necessary, whatever the result may be, because legal paternity has been established and biological paternity is simply no longer relevant.

Attorneys are divided, with some believing that the doctrine of equitable parenthood and the use of the doctrine of estoppel to deny paternity is a good and equitable principle to uphold the integrity of family units. Then there are those who believe that in 1996 the time has come to recognize the rights of the biological father and that factual determination should control the obligation to support rather than a doctrine that ignores reality for illusion.

The jury may be out on this issue for years to come. What do you think?

My thanks to the Honorable Denise Langford-Morris, a Oakland County Circuit Judge, who carried a newspaper clipping of the "Ms. T" v "Mr. G" case in her wallet for weeks in order to pass along to me the suggestion that the subject would make an interesting article.


Article originally appeared on Divorce Online | Divorce Resources | Legal, Financial & Counseling | State Statutes (http://www.divorceonline.com/).
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