Paternity and Equitable Estoppel

Equitable estoppel typically arises as a defense in situations where a person, typically a nonbiological father, seeks to avoid child support obligations or the biological father belatedly seeks recognition of his parental rights.

DNA testing is a way to guarantee that non-custodial parents provide financial support for their children and make it possible to accurately determine a child’s paternity in a quick and inexpensive manner. The widespread availability of reliable genetic testing has reduced the need for extensive fact finding hearings and protracted litigation in the court system and can essentially ensure that the presumptive father is really the child’s biological father. However, in New York, not every putative father entitled to a DNA test.

Consider a scenario where a presumptive father files a paternity petition in a New York family court, together with a petition for custody of a child he believed to be his own. The child’s mother concedes paternity and acknowledges that her son refers to the putative father as his father and that the putative father has had some involvement with the child. Lets assume farther that during the paternity hearing, however, the putative father requests that the Court order a DNA test to confirm that he is indeed the child’s biological father. Must the Court issue an order subjecting the child to DNA testing?

In New York, the answer is no. Under what is known as the doctrine of equitable estoppel, the Court may deny an application for a DNA test in a paternity proceeding on the principle of fairness and in the best interests of the child. Equitable estoppel precludes a presumptive father from speaking out against his own acts, commitments or representations if they are reasonably relied upon by the child.

If a substantial parent-child relationship has developed between the putative father and the child and no biological father has come forward to contribute to the costs of the child’s upbringing, New York courts may find that it is not in the child’s best interests to admit DNA evidence that disproves the presumptive father’s paternity. The doctrine of equitable estoppel has often been applied to protect the child from an untimely assertion or denial of paternity, which, if permitted, would damage an existing parent/child relationship.

In Shondel J. v. Mark D., 7 N.Y.3d 320 (2006), the Court of Appeals directly addressed the application of equitable estoppel in paternity and support proceedings. In that case, the court found that the respondent, who never married the mother and was not the biological father of the woman’s child, was equitably estopped from denying paternity. The child was believed to be the product of a brief liaison between the respondent and the mother. The respondent initially acknowledged paternity and provided some financial support. He had intermittent visitation with the child, although he was often not even in the same country as the mother and child. Four years after the child’s birth, it was determined that he was not the biological father. The court found that the respondent was equitably estopped from raising the issue of paternity, both by statute (Family Court Act § 418 [a]; § 532 [a]) and at common law. The court concluded that both the statute and case law required that the best interests of the child controlled whether a person was required to continue support payments, even if it was belatedly determined that he was not the biological parent. “The potential damage to a child’s psyche caused by suddenly ending established parental support need only be stated to be appreciated. Cutting off that support, whether emotional or financial, may leave the child in a worse position than if that support had never been given. . . . [T]he issue does not involve the equities between the two adults; the case turns exclusively on the best interests of the child.”

The doctrine of equitable estoppel evolved as a balancing test between the best interests of the child and the rights of the parent. Where there has been a bond formed between the parent and child, the interest of the child in preserving that relationship and the obligations of the parent toward that child, outweigh the putative father’s interest in establishing whether he is really the child’s biological father.

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