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Berks County Court Enforces Paternity by Estoppel

Posted in Support

J. Benjamin Nevius of our Exton, Chester County office writes for our firm’s Berks County Law Update blog.  Benjamin recently wrote about an excellent article about a Berks County case addressing paternity by estoppel and he has graciously allowed me to republish it here in its entirety.  Visit the Berks County Law Update blog to stay informed on a variety of legal issues arising from and relevant to Berks County.

"Berks County Court Enforces Paternity by Estoppel," by J. Benjamin Nevius.

Judge Bucci of the Berks County Court of Common Pleas recently barred a father from disclaiming paternity over a minor child pursuant the common law doctrine of paternity by estoppel.

In January 2012, Plaintiff (“Mother”) filed a Complaint for Support in the Berks County Domestic Relations Office seeking financial support from her estranged husband, Defendant (“Father”), for her 4-year-old minor child (the “Child”).  Father challenged the Complaint and filed a Petition for Special Relief seeking an order for DNA testing to disestablish paternity.

According to the Court’s opinion, the parties agreed that Child was conceived and born during the marriage, but is not the biological child of Father.  The Court found that Child was, in fact, the product of an extramarital affair.  Although Father suspected infidelity, according to the Court’s opinion, Mother concealed the affair and assured Father that he was the biological father. 

Approximately four years after the Child’s birth, the parties separated.  Shortly thereafter, Father claimed he privately performed a paternity test revealing that he was not Child’s biological father.  Father did not cease contact with the Child, but rather reduced his custodial time.  According to the Court, Father continues to see the Child and to treat the Child as his own.  In fact, Child does not have knowledge of her paternity and continues to call Father “Daddy.”

After a hearing, the Court denied Father’s Petition and his request for a paternity test, citing Pennsylvania’s “paternity by estoppel” doctrine, which stands for the proposition that a “putative father” who is not the child’s biological father is estopped from challenging paternity after he has “held himself out as the child’s father or provided support.”  See Ellison v. Lopez, 959 A.2d 395 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2008).  Although fraud is an exception to this common law rule, the Court found that it did not apply.  Specifically, the Court found that Father suspected from the earliest stages of Mother’s pregnancy that he was not the father.  Further, when he learned of Mother’s infidelities, he continued to hold the Child out as his own.

Citing a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision,  the Court held that, even where there is fraud between spouses, “there are arguments to be made that the best interests of a child should remain the predominant consideration.”  See K.E.M. v. P.C.S., 38 A.3d 798, 808 (Pa. 2012).  Reflecting on testimony offered at the hearing, the Court found that Father took an active role in Child’s life, including spending holidays with her, attending school functions, visiting with her on Father’s Day, and claiming her as a dependent on his income taxes. 

The Court expressed its sympathy for Father in this deeply personal matter, but expressed compelling advocacy for the Child.  In a statement that will resonate with many parents of young children, the Court stated:

When a man assumes the role of ‘father,’ either knowing he is not the biological father or by turning a blind eye to the possibility that he is not the biological father, he makes a lifelong commitment to the child.  This commitment should not be contingent on the status of his relationship to the child’s mother, or on any other circumstance.

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Although [Mother’s] deceitfulness weighed heavily on this Court in reaching its conclusion to apply the doctrine of paternity by estoppel, we simply could not allow [Father’s] willful blindness to be the basis for undermining the only reality the Child has ever known. 

Father appealed the Court’s decision, and the matter is presently pending before the Superior Court, which will have yet another opportunity to reaffirm the doctrine of paternity by estoppe in the absence of legislative involvement.