PA Supreme Court Adjusts Paternity Rule for Child Support Cases

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled to alter the standard for paternity in PA child support cases.  Their ruling suggests that the PA courts may hold biological fathers to child support duties more strictly and that the courts should emphasize the best interests of the child standard in deciding whether child support should be paid by the biological father or by the man who acts as the child’s father.

This ruling stems from a fairly unusual set of facts.  A married couple had two children, but the wife had an affair and became pregnant with the other man’s child.  When the child, a boy, was born, the husband was not listed on the birth certificate, and private genetic testing ruled out the husband as the boy’s father.  The husband raised the boy as his own for about four years before the husband and wife split up.  At the time of the trial, the husband and wife were separated, but neither had filed for divorce.  The wife filed a lawsuit, claiming that the biological father should pay child support.

Paternity by Estoppel in PA

The PA trial court dismissed her claim for child support, holding that the legal doctrine of “paternity by estoppel”, where a couple has held a child out to be a child of their marriage, barred the biological father from having to pay.  Paternity by estoppel essentially means that if a man has played the role of a father to a child, he and everyone else are prohibited from asserting another man as the father.  The philosophy of this doctrine is to make the child’s life as stable as possible by avoiding the trauma of bringing an alternative father into the picture.

Both men involved in this case were aware of the question of paternity prior to the child’s birth.  The husband did not list his name on the birth certificate and was ruled out as the father by DNA testing.  The purported biological father declined DNA testing.  His role in the boy’s life included money and some gifts for Christmas and occasional visits to parks and playgrounds.  According to his attorney, he wants to have little involvement in the child’s life, in part because he has other children who could be adversely affected if they were to discover that he has a son out of wedlock.

The PA Supreme Court’s Ruling

The PA Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling and sent the case back to the lower court with instructions for the judge to gather more information about what would be in the best interest of the boy.  The Court said that the mother’s estranged husband would not necessarily be obligated to pay child support just because he held himself out to be the father of the child.  The Court opined that determinations of paternity by estoppel in PA “should be better informed according to the actual best interests of the child,” and the Court noted that this standard would need to be refined by future cases.

The PA Supreme Court Justices noted that advances in modern science have removed the guesswork from paternity and that the stigma attached to births out of wedlock is far less than it once was.  According to the majority opinion, “we realize there will be children of broken marriages who may never enjoy the supportive relationship with either ‘psychological’ or biological fathers.  All things being equal in this regard, we conclude that the responsibility for fatherhood should lie with the biological father.”

In summary, the doctrine of paternity by estoppel continues to exist in PA, but it will only apply where it can be shown that it is in the best interests of the involved child.

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