No-Fault Divorce Becomes Law In New York

The no-fault divorce bill has been signed by the Governor Patterson and will go into effect in 60 days.  That means that starting on October 13, 2010, someone who wants to be divorced in New York will no longer be required to make allegations of martial fault by the other spouse and will only be required to swear that the relationship between husband and wife has  broken  down  irretrievably  for  a period of at least six months.  The new law will apply to the divorce actions commenced on or after such effective date.

In addition, the Governor signed legislation that will revise the process for setting awards of temporary maintenance while a divorce is pending, by creating a formula and list of factors that would presumptively govern such awards. This would allow for speedy resolution of the maintenance issue, and prevent less well-off parties to divorce proceedings from falling into poverty during litigation, because they lack the resources to obtain a temporary maintenance order. Another bill would create a presumption that a less monied spouse in a divorce case is entitled to payment of attorneys’ fees. Under current law, a party that cannot afford to secure representation in a divorce proceeding must make an application for fees at the end of the process, which can force a poor individual to proceed without a lawyer, or to surrender on important issues due to lack of means. Provisions of the Domestic Relations Law related to temporary maintenance and attorneys fees will go into effect in 60 days as well.

These are important development in New York’s family law and I think that it will take some time to assess their impact.  At the same time, I think that they will be welcomed by divorce lawyers in this state and will make divorce easier for the divorcing spouses. With respect to the bill establishing the formula for temporary maintenance, it is highly likely that any such temporary maintenance award is going to be used by the courts as a basis for a permanent maintenance award.

Acknowledgment of Paternity – Should It Be Signed By the Putative Father?

During the last few months, I have been involved with a case that involved an acknowledgment of paternity that was signed by someone who was not the child’s biological father.  While most of the time the acknowledgment is signed without a great deal of consideration, I think that putative fathers should be careful and only sign the acknowledgment if they understand the full set of legal issues associated with this document.

Once the acknowledgment is signed, there is a limited period of time during which the acknowledgment can be vacated.  Usually this comes up in a situation where either the father or the mother discovers that the father of her child is not the biological father and wants to change his name to either hers, or that of the biological father. Unfortunately, it is not that simple.

Most of the time, a child, who has the father’s last name, has acquired it when the father signed the Acknowledgement of Paternity soon after the child was born, particularly where the parties were not married. In this situation, changing the child’s last name to either the mother’s name or the actual father’s name may require several steps in court, because the “notice” (the one who signed the acknowledgment) father can object to any proposed change.  In a situation where paternity needs to be established (or re-established), Family Court is the proper venue for filing a petition.  The mother can file a petition requesting that the Acknowledgement of Paternity be vacated based on the fact that the father is not the actual father, or; either she or the biological father, can file a Paternity petition.  In the first situation, assuming that the filing is timely, the court granting the mother’s request for vacating the Acknowledgement of Paternity does not automatically establish the real father of the child as the father for any purpose. Once the Acknowledgment is vacated, legally, there is no father that the court will acknowledge until there is someone that can be identified and brought to court.  Thus, a Paternity petition must be filed by either party to obtain an Order of Filiation, which establishes the father as the “legal” father, from the Court.  This is the legal document that is required by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (”DHMH”) to issue a new birth certificate with the new name on it, that of the father’s.

In second situation, if the either parent files a petition for Paternity, then the father can either consent to paternity or, if he does not, the court can order Genetic Marker (DNA) Test to confirm that he is actually the biological father.  However, before the DNA test is ordered by the court, it will have to address any equitable estoppel issues that may arise.  Assuming that equitable estoppel issues have been resolved, and the DNA test takes place, then the Court will issue an Order of Filiation, which is provided to the DHMH for the issuance of a new birth certificate.

Equitable estoppel in those situations may be raised both offensively and defensively by either the man initially believed to be the biological father or the man believed to be the true biological father.  Not all fathers cooperate since an Order of Filiation typically results in an order for child support and, possibly, a liability for birth expenses.  The courts are reluctant to vacate an Acknowledgement of Paternity where there is currently a child support order against the man, initially believed to be the biological father, unless the court can identify the actual father so that the child has someone to support him.

There are several good reasons for someone to establish paternity.  For example, although a father whose name is on the child’s birth certificate is considered the “notice” father, his rights with regards to adoption, termination of parental rights and abuse/neglect matters in Family Court are limited, until paternity is established.  A father whose paternity has been established is the “legal” father, on the other hand, has no limits with regards to his rights in any case in any court.

In almost all circumstances, it is wise to ascertain who the actual father is as soon as possible after the child’s birth, so as to limit any other legal issues that may arise, such as equitable estoppel.