January 7, 2018 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Last time I raised several policy issues regarding how courts deal with paternity fraud, or don’t as is more often the case. The article I linked to does a good job of spelling out just how complicated Pennsylvania law is. Stated another way, Pennsylvania prefers labyrinthine laws and procedures over the ease, accuracy and simplicity of testing the DNA of every child at birth.
In Pennsylvania, there still exists the presumption that a child born to a married couple is a product of the marriage, as inJohn M. v. Paula T., 571 A.2d 1380 (Pa. 1990). The Supreme Court limited this presumption inBrinkley v. King, 701 A.2d 176 (Pa. 1997), when it held that the marital presumption of paternity should only be applied to preserve the marriage and keep a family intact. Therefore, Pennsylvania’s courts seem inclined to grant genetic testing for a child born to a married couple only if there is no longer a family unit to preserve.
In other words, a married man has essentially no legal right to know whether a child born to his wife is his or not. He has to get divorced first.
When dealing with a child born out of wedlock, where no presumption of paternity exists, there are additional issues. The father of a child born out of wedlock can sign an acknowledgement of paternity. The Superior Court has held that by signing an acknowledgement of paternity, a party is acknowledging that he is the biological father and is giving up the right to later challenge and litigate paternity, as inD.M. v. V.B., 87 A.3d 323, 328 (Pa. Super. 2014).
The likely scenario is that of a man who’s told by his girlfriend that she’s pregnant. Maybe they’ve been intentionally trying for a child or maybe not. Whatever the case, she or someone at the doctor’s office lets him know that all he has to do to officially become the child’s father is to sign this nice little form. What are the chances that he says, “I have my doubts and want to do DNA testing?” That would be awkward in the extreme, so the chances are good that he signs. Little does he know that he’s just signed away any chance he has of later challenging paternity.
But there’s more.
Even absent a signed acknowledgement of paternity, a party may still be denied genetic testing if he has held the child out as his own. This concept is known as the doctrine of paternity by estoppel…
The doctrine of paternity by estoppel will not be applied when there is a showing that fraud was involved, as inB.O. v. C.O., 590 A.2d 313, 315-316 (Pa. Super. 1991). It is well settled that fraud is proved when it is shown that the false representation was made knowingly, or in conscious ignorance of the truth, or recklessly without caring whether it be true or false, (quotingWarren Balderston v. Integrity Trust, 170 A. 282 (Pa. 1934)).
So the man didn’t sign the acknowledgement of paternity form but, enthusiastic about the birth of his child, he tells all his friends and relatives it’s his, puts his name in the blank for “father” when enrolling the child in daycare, opens a college fund account for “his” child, etc. That too prohibits him from challenging paternity at a later date. And, unlike the paternity form, there’s no notice to him of the legal consequences of his misplaced enthusiasm about the child.
In short, Pennsylvania erects some pretty high barriers to kids knowing their true father. Those barriers proved insuperable to the father – M.F. - in the case reported on.
The Superior Court inS.N.M. v. M.F.determined the trial court abused its discretion when it granted genetic testing. The ruling was based upon the father’s signed acknowledgement of paternity. In its ruling, the court relied on the existing custody order and recognized it as a proceeding that already determined paternity.
M.F., believing he was the child’s father, signed the acknowledgement form and agreed to a custody order based on that acknowledgement and, one assumes, his belief that he is the child’s father. That means he’s required to pay to support another man’s child. It also means the other man has no relationship with his child, nor the child with him.
Pennsylvania law encourages lying. It allows a mother to select a child’s “father” irrespective of the reality of the situation. It places the onus of learning the truth – with whom Mom had sex at or near the time of conception - on the person who doesn’t know the truth and removes it from the person who does know the truth. Its doing so is unique in present-day law that everywhere requires disclosure of material facts by the person with knowledge of those facts.
Pennsylvania law opts for holding a non-father responsible for supporting a father’s child. The principle that adults who produce offspring should be financially responsible for them is thus tossed out the window. It deprives children of the right to know their true fathers. It deprives those fathers of the right to know and care for their children.
And of course it does all of that despite the ready availability of an easy and essentially foolproof method of establishing the paternity of every child.
In all that, Pennsylvania is much like the other 49 states.
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