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March 27, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

Another man, this time in Iowa, faces paying child support for a child he knows is not his. Read about it here (DesMoines Register, 3/25/16).

The article linked to isn’t very informative about an important subject – the actual requirements of Iowa law on the subject of paternity. It strongly suggests that, since the man, Joe Vandusen, is still technically married to the mother of the child, nothing else matters. He’s not the child’s father, but he’s the “legal father,” and that’s the end of it. Or is it?

Joe Vandusen, 45, received a letter earlier this month from the Iowa Department of Human Services notifying him that he would be required to pay child support for his estranged wife's child, even though he is not the father, Vandusen told The Des Moines Register Friday evening.

Vandusen and his wife have hardly talked in 15 to 17 years, aside from an occasional phone call or Facebook message, he said. "I was married to my ex a couple of years, but we didn't see eye-to-eye, so we split up," without filing for an official divorce, Vandusen said. The child Vandusen is expected to help support is about 1 year old, he said.

So Vandusen married this woman 20 years or so ago, they split up, but neither took the trouble to officially divorce. They’ve had no contact with each other in as long as 17 years, and her child is one year old. In short, the child isn’t Vandusen’s. Except, according to the state, it is.

Vandusen contacted the Department of Human Services' Child Support Recovery Unit to say he's not the biological father of his wife's child, and he offered to take a paternity test to prove it — but he was told it didn't matter, according to state law, he said.

"They said since I'm still legally married, I'm going to be responsible for the child support," Vandusen said.

Now, in most states, there’s a presumption that a child born to a married woman is her husband’s. But that’s a rebuttable presumption. He can go to court, request a paternity test, prove he’s not the father and be relieved of any support obligation and all parental rights. But the article, and Vandusen’s understanding of state law, strongly suggest that, in Iowa, it’s not just a presumption, but an established fact. That is, irrespective of genetics, he’s legally obligated to support the child, irrespective of everything.

Did Vandusen misunderstand what he was told by the CSRU? Or did the CSRU misrepresent the facts in order to dissuade him from asserting his right to a paternity test? It’s hard to know, so I went to this site for Iowa Legal Aid, which contains these nuggets:

Iowa law requires a "legal father" to support his child(ren).

Is the legal father always the biological father?
Not always. Suppose a woman who is married to a man has a baby whose father is not her husband. The law says her husband is the legal father of the child. Then the woman and her husband separate. If she asks and gets child support, her husband will be responsible for paying the amount of child support.

That seems clear enough. A “legal father” is required to support his children. A man is a legal father if his wife has a child, regardless of whether the child is biologically his. If they separate, he’s required to pay her to support the child. Period. As I said, that looks clear – outrageous - but clear.

Or is it?

What can a man responsible for paying child support do if he is not the father of the child?
He can ask a court to find that he is not the biological father of the child. This process is called "disestablishing paternity." If the court takes away the obligation to support the child, it also ends the right to see the child. There are three ways to have paternity reviewed:

The legal father files a request for genetic testing after he gets a notice from Child Support Recovery Unit (CSRU);

A parent files for divorce; or

A parent files a case in court to disestablish paternity.

That too seems perfectly clear. A man who’s not genetically related to a child can go to court, prove it and be “disestablished” as the father.

Now, I say the man “can go to court,” but in Vandusen’s case, that may not be true.

Vandusen was recently laid off from his job, so he doesn't have the money to pay child support, he said. He also doesn't have the money to pay for an attorney to file for divorce and to fight in court against the child support requirement.

That of course brings up the most important point that, predictably, the Register article doesn’t mention. Vandusen is desperately trying to raise $2,000 to pay for a lawyer, go to court, file for divorce, file a motion for paternity testing, get the tests done and get a court order disestablishing him as the father. Why should he have to do all that? Further, why should judges, lawyers, bailiffs, process servers, the CSRU, testing laboratories, etc., waste their time establishing a fact there’s surely no serious dispute about?

There’s a simple way to cut the process short and save everyone, including Iowa taxpayers, a lot of money: ask Mom who the dad is and require her to tell the truth. I suppose it’s a radical notion, since no jurisdiction in the English-speaking world requires it, but why not pass a law requiring a woman to identify the father of their child?

Oh, I know it won’t always be possible. But 99 times out of 100, she’ll either know who the dad is or know that it’s one of two or so men. In the former case, she should be required to identify the dad; in the latter she should be required to identify all possible dads. And, in that latter case, all possible fathers could then submit tissue samples for testing and, from the start, everyone would know who is – and who isn’t – the father.

Not only that, but we’d never again have a situation in which a child is led to believe that John is its father, only to learn after years of a father-child relationship that actually Joe – whom the child has never met – is. That kind of outrageous abuse of one child and two men should never happen again. We have the technology to prevent it. We should use that technology.

In Vandusen’s case, has the CSRU even asked the mother who the father is? If so, did she tell them the truth? If she did, why hasn’t the agency demanded child support from the actual dad instead of, once again, wasting its and everyone else’s time? Why not just do the sensible, logical, easy and fair thing?

Why put the onus on an impecunious man who clearly isn’t the child’s father? After all, if Vandusen’s successful at hiring a lawyer, he’ll be eventually disestablished as the child’s father. And guess what’ll happen then. The state will do what it should have done all along. It’ll ask Mom who the dad is, send him a letter and start the process all over again.

I know that being sensible isn’t a big part of what child support is about, but please. Isn’t there someone in this case who can just do the right thing?

Meanwhile,

"I'd like to see my divorce get filed; I want the DNA test to prove I'm not the father, and then they'd drop the case against me," he said.

He also hopes Iowa lawmakers will notice his case and change the law, he said.

Such a law would put the onus on the mother to truthfully inform state officials of the identity of the father of her child. She’s the one with the information.  

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National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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