Absolute Paternity Presumption Estopped
A recent case heard by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, K.E.M. v. P.C.S., No, 12-0405, has potentially reversed years of Pennsylvania common law by changing who could be held responsible for a child support order.
In K.E.M., it was revealed that a married woman (“the Mother”) had a child (“the Child”) as a result of an adulterous affair. The Child was born during the Mother’s marriage and her husband (“the Husband”) assumed parental responsibility over the child, despite the potential cloud over the Child’s paternity. Eventually the Mother attempted to seek a child support order against the Child’s biological father (“the Father”) after discovering, pursuant to a paternity test, that the Husband was not the Child’s father. The Child had a limited relationship with the Father as he occasionally spent time with the Child and gave him gifts. Indeed, the Child called both Father and Husband “Daddy”.
In response to the Mother’s attempt to secure a support order against him, the Father filed a Motion to Dismiss, arguing the traditional defense of estoppel, which states that as the Child was born during the course of Mother’s marriage, and Husband had assumed parental duties, Mother was estopped from seeking child support from him. Indeed, the traditional estoppel defense, as described above, raised absolute bar to a mother seeking support from a biological father when a presumptive father exists. As Husband had assumed parental duties, under the traditional estoppel argument, he would be the presumptive father of the Child, which would make him liable for the support of the Child, regardless of the state of his relationship with Mother.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, by a 5 to 2 vote, elected to modify the traditional estoppel defense described above. The Court ruled that the doctrine of estoppel should not serve as an absolute bar to pursue a biological father for child support when a presumptive father exists. Instead, the Court ruled that the presumption ought to be rebuttable if it serves the best interests of the child and, at the very least, if the biological father could serve as a witness at a child support hearing. Further, the Court ruled that in these cases a court ought to have the option of appointing the subject child a guardian ad litem with the identity of the biological father being relevant to determine who ought to pay for the guardian. Finally, the Court ruled that the Uniform Act on Blood Tests to Determine Paternity is to be applied in terms of how it authorizes paternity testing in cases which involve separation and/or divorce.
The dissent felt that the Court did not go far enough. Specifically, the dissent felt that the Court sent a poor message to mothers and potential fathers. The dissent observed that the traditional estoppel defense rewarded husbands to immediately discontinue a relationship and financial support for a child as soon as a question as to his/her paternity is raised for fear of having to pay for the support of that child until s/he reaches majority. Indeed, the dissent noted that it also served to allow a biological father to avoid his parental responsibilities by punishing the noble acts of a presumptive father.
The case at issue here was remanded for further investigation of the facts, therefore this area of the law is now clearly in flux and continued development appears to be on the horizon.
Published on August 21, 2012 as the featured article in Upon Further Review which can be viewed here and reprinted in Volume 34 Issue No. 4 (December 2012) of Pennsylvania Family Lawyer.