Archive for the ‘paternity’ Category

Surrogacy and Adoption

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

One area where New York still lags behind other states has to do with surrogacy contracts. New York does not recognize surrogacy contracts statutorily since it deems the underlying surrogacy contracts to be against public policy, and they are void and unenforceable in New York. See N.Y. Dom. Rel. L. § 122. However, what happens to a child born as a result of such contract?

In a recent decision, Matter of J.J., 2014 N.Y. Slip. Op. 24089 (Fam. Ct. Queens Co. 2014), New York Family Court held that a child born as a result of a surrogacy contract can be adopted in the State of New York, notwithstanding the fact that such contract would be void and unenforceable.  In that decision, Judge Salinitro held that a man may legally adopt his husband’s biological twins even though they were born to a woman under a surrogacy agreement that is illegal in New York State. According to the court, the best interests of the twins is the most important consideration in weighing the adoption petition, not the surrogacy agreement that resulted in their birth. According to the decision, a home study provided to the court showed that the children are thriving in the care of the parents.

Thus, the court stated that it is not being asked to enforce the surrogacy contract that forms the basis for the adoption, nor does the relief sought include claims relating to the surrogacy agreement itself. Rather, the case involved proposed adoptive parent who wanted to have equivalent legal status as the birth parent, and is prepared to assume the rights and responsibilities that accompany legal parentage.

Therefore, the surrogacy agreement with the woman who bore the children in Mumbai, India, in 2013 was of no consequence to the adoption. The court specifically found that “where a surrogacy contract exists and an adoption has been filed to establish legal parentage, such surrogacy contract does not foreclose an adoption from proceeding”.

Section 122 of Domestic Relations Law declares that “surrogate parenting contracts are hereby declared contrary to the public policy of this state, and are void and unenforceable”. The judge said she found a “paucity” of previous rulings in New York on surrogacy and none directly focused on surrogacy contracts in the adoption context. Accordingly, she called the issue before her an apparent question of first impression in New York courts.

I think that the judge made the right decision. Given that the law does not always keep up with changes in medical technology and society, the courts have to step in and address these types of issues.

Minors and Rescission of Acknowledgment of Paternity

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

A recent bill signed into law by Governor Cuomo, allows minors who acknowledged paternity of their children to have a brief period of time when they turn 18 to seek to rescind that acknowledgment . Family Court Act §516-a will permit young men who signed the acknowledgment of paternity up to 60 days, starting on their 18th birthday, to file a petition seeking to vacate.

Under the present law, if someone over the age of eighteen has signed an acknowledgment of paternity, the signatory may seek to rescind the acknowledgment by filing a petition with the court to vacate the acknowledgment within the earlier of sixty days of the date of signing the acknowledgment or the date of an administrative or a judicial proceeding (including, but not limited to, a proceeding to establish a support order) relating to the child in which the signatory is a party. The “date of an administrative or a judicial proceeding” means the date by which the respondent is required to answer the petition.

Sponsors of the legislation had said that seeking a rescission of paternity will not necessarily extinguish the paternal rights but could result in a judge ordering a DNA test to conclusively establish or disprove parenthood. Signing the acknowledgment of paternity is a serious matter since it carries responsibilities, such as paying child support for non-custodial children until they turn 21.

According to the legilative history of the statute, the change was prompted by the recognition that minors often sign acknowledgments without guidance from their parents or other adults, or sign them for children they know are not theirs without realizing the long-term ramifications. If acknowledgment is signed and, subsequently, there is evidence that the party who signed it is not the birth father, it may be too late to do anything about it.

A safer course of action is not to sign an acknowledgment. If the acknowledgment of paternity is not signed, then paternity will needs to be established, and Family Court is the proper venue for filing a paternity petition. 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. Generally, the DNA test is conclusive evidence of who the biological parent is. 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.

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

Monday, August 9th, 2010

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.

Asserting Equitable Estoppel As a Defense to a Paternity Proceeding

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

I have previously written about equitable estoppel.  In a typical equitable estoppel situation, the birth parent, typically the mother, asserts equitable estoppel to prevent genetic blood marker testing to determine whether the individual who believed himself to be the child’s father is in fact that child’s biological father.

In a recent case, Juanita A. v. Kenneth Mark N., 2010 N.Y. Slip. Op. 03758 (2010), the Court of Appeals held that a biological father may assert an equitable estoppel defense in paternity and child support proceedings, where there is another father-figure is present in the child’s life.

On June 25, 1994, the child was born. At the time, mother was unmarried, but living with Raymond S., who was listed as the child’s father on her birth certificate. Mother and Raymond had a previous child together and, after the birth of that child, had another child. When the child was seven years old, during a family dispute, she became aware that Raymond may not be her biological father. At that time, mother called Kenneth at his home in Florida and had him speak with the child. The conversation lasted less than ten minutes, during which time A. asked questions concerning his physical characteristics. Kenneth’s attempt to speak with the child a second time was rebuffed by Raymond, who warned Kenneth not to speak to her again. Kenneth has had no further contact with the child.

In 2006, when the child was approximately twelve years old, mother filed the instant petition against Kenneth, seeking an order of filiation and child support. Kenneth appeared before Family Court for the first time by way of telephone. The Support Magistrate advised Kenneth, among other things, that he had the right to admit or deny that he was the father of the child. However, the Magistrate did not advise Kenneth that he had the right to assignment of counsel, or inquire whether he wished to consult with counsel prior to proceeding. Kenneth agreed to the ordered genetic marker testing, which indicated a 99.99% probability that Kenneth is indeed the child’s biological father.

At a hearing in January 2007, Kenneth, having now been assigned counsel, appeared once again via telephone, but protested that he had yet to speak with the lawyer assigned to him. Counsel admitted that he had not spoken to his client, and that the “file fell through the cracks for me.” Despite Kenneth’s protest, the Support Magistrate proceeded with the hearing. When the issue of equitable estoppel was raised by Kenneth, the Magistrate, lacking the authority to hear that issue, transferred the case to a Judge of the Family Court. That court, determining the issue on motion papers and oral argument, held that Kenneth was the father of A. and entered an order of filiation.

The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that the doctrine of equitable estoppel is applicable in paternity proceedings only where it is invoked to further the best interests of the child, and “generally is not available to a party seeking to disavow the allegation of parenthood for the purpose of avoiding child support” (Aikens v. Nell, 63 AD3d 1662 (4th Dept. 2009)). The court also rejected Kenneth’s contention that he was denied effective assistance of counsel.

In Shondel J. v Mark D., 7 N.Y.3d 320 (2006), the Court of Appeals set forth the law applicable to equitable estoppel in paternity and child support proceedings. It held that

purpose of equitable estoppel is to preclude a person from asserting a right after having led another to form the reasonable belief that the right would not be asserted, and loss or prejudice to the other would result if the right were asserted. The law imposes the doctrine as a matter of fairness. Its purpose is to prevent someone from enforcing rights that would work injustice on the person against whom enforcement is sought and who, while justifiably relying on the opposing party’s actions, has been misled into a detrimental change of position.

We concluded that the “paramount” concern in such cases “has been and continues to be the best interests of the child.

Id. at 326.

Equitable estoppel has been used, as it was in Shondel J., to prevent a man from avoiding child support by claiming that he is not the child’s biological father. In such a case, the man has represented himself to be the child’s father and the child’s best interests are served by a declaration of fatherhood. The doctrine in this way protects “the status interests of a child in an already recognized and operative parent-child relationship” (In re Baby Boy C., 84 NY2d 91, 102n [1994]). Here, Kenneth sought to invoke the doctrine against mother, who led Kenneth to form the reasonable belief that he was not a father and that Raymond is A.’s father. He argued that it is not in A.’s best interest to have her current, child-father relationship with Raymond interrupted.

At the time the instant petition was brought, A. was 12 years old and had lived in an intact family with Raymond and her mother. His name appears on her birth certificate and he is the biological father of her older and younger siblings. For most of A.’s life, she referred to Raymond as father. Thus, Kenneth appropriately raised an issue as to whether it is in A.’s best interest to have someone besides Raymond declared her father this late in her childhood. As a result, the Court concluded that it was proper for him to assert a claim of estoppel to, among other things, protect the status of that parent-child relationship.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the Law Guardian’s position that a person who has already been determined to be a child’s biological father cannot raise an equitable estoppel argument. The Court stated that the doctrine has been used to prevent a biological father from asserting paternity rights when it would be detrimental to the child’s interests to disrupt the child’s close relationship with another father figure. The same best-interests considerations that justify estopping a biological father from asserting his paternity may justify preventing a mother from asserting it. Indeed, whether it is being used in the offensive posture to enforce rights or the defensive posture to prevent rights from being enforced, equitable estoppel is only to be used to protect the best interests of the child. Therefore, the Court held that the doctrine of equitable estoppel may be used by a purported biological father to prevent a child’s mother from asserting biological paternity — when the mother has acquiesced in the development of a close relationship between the child and another father figure, and it would be detrimental to the child’s interests to disrupt that relationship.

As a result of the Court’s decision, the case was remanded for a hearing where Raymond will be joined as a necessary party, so that Family Court may consider the nature of his relationship with the child and make a proper determination of the child’s best interests.

I think that this is an important case but its application is limited to very specific factual situations.

Grounds for Divorce, Truthfulness, Paternity and Consequences

Friday, January 15th, 2010

I have previously written how New York’s fault system of divorce which requires the parties to satisfy grounds requirements tends to result in unneeded matrimonial litigation and, in some case, leave the parties married despite the fact that the marriage died many years ago.  A recent decision brought a new twist on an all too common situation.

In Andrew T. v Yana T., 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 29530 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Co. 2009), the parties were married in in 2006.  In September of 2007, the plaintiff husband brought a divorce action on the grounds of constructive abandonment.  On March 19, 2008, defendant-wife gave birth to a baby boy.  This event not only predated the divorce judgment dissolving the parties’ marriage, but was prior to defendant having signed her affidavit and the parties having entered their separation and property settlement agreement. According to plaintiff, he was never aware that defendant was pregnant and he only learned about the child after the parties were already divorced. There was no father listed on child’s birth certificate.

Once plaintiff learned of the existence of the child, he petitioned the court for an order directing paternity testing.  Defendant opposed the motion contending that the child, who was not born until March 19, 2008, cannot possibly be plaintiff’s.  Defendant further argued that if plaintiff is taking the position that the child is plaintiff’s child, this means that the sworn statements in his verified complaint concerning the lack of sexual relations with defendant must be untrue.  As a result, defendant cross-moved for an order finding that plaintiff has violated Penal Law section 210.10, perjury in the second degree.

Defendant’s argument was predicated on the fact that with respect to plaintiff’s cause of action for constructive abandonment, plaintiff alleged in his verified complaint “that commencing on or about August 1, 2006, and continuing for a period of more than one (1) year immediately prior to commencement of this action, the defendant refused to have sexual relations with the plaintiff despite plaintiff’s repeated requests to resume such relations.”  The complaint stated that there were no children of the marriage.  Defendant had neither interposed an answer to the complaint nor in any other way sought to contest the divorce.  Instead she provided plaintiff with an affidavit in which she admitted service of the summons and complaint “based upon the following grounds: constructive abandonment DRL §170(2).”

Following the execution of defendant’s affidavit and the parties’ agreement, plaintiff promptly placed the case on the uncontested matrimonial calendar for submission. This meant that neither party had to appear in court to give testimony because the application for the divorce judgment was to be decided on the papers alone.  On July 29, 2008, a judge signed the judgment dissolving the marriage between the parties by reason of the constructive abandonment of plaintiff by defendant. The judgment stated that there are no known children of the marriage and none are expected.

While defendant’s argument was creative, the trial court judge did not accept it, pointing out that the defendant has not presented any evidence to exclude plaintiff as defendant did not present any evidnce other than relying on plaintiff’s verified complaint.

In addition, the court stated that the presumption of legitimacy, the child’s best interests and plaintiff”s request for paternity testing were interrelated.  Plaintiff was already presumed to be child’s father by virtue of having been married to the child’s mother when the child was born.  The child’s best interests lie in having his parentage confirmed, his father’s name listed on his birth certificate, and his rights and status attendant to the father-son relationship fully established.  A positive paternity test would provide the means by which any doubt as to whether plaintiff is the child’s father.

With respect to defendant’s cross-motion seeking a finding that the plaintiff committed perjury, a felony, the court stated the following:

Suffice it to say that if the District Attorney was intent on prosecuting all the people who, within the context of uncontested divorce proceedings, falsely claim not to have had sexual relations with their spouses, there would be little time left for pursuing other crimes. As with a revelation that a husband or wife has committed the crime of adultery by having had sex outside the marriage, there are instances of wrongdoing that do not demand the attention of the People of the State of New York in order to keep our society safe and secure.  This is one of them.

The court further addressed New York’s lack of no-fault divorce in rather strong terms:

If New York was like every other state, even those that some might think of as legally and socially backward, and had a true no-fault ground for divorce, such as “irreconcilable differences” ( Mississippi) or “incompatibility” (Oklahoma), the situation here, as difficult as it already is involving a battle over a child, could have been that less complicated. This is because plaintiff would never have had to make the representations that he did about his sex life with defendant just so a New York court could free the parties from a marriage that neither side wished to continue.

Unfortunately, our state, which prides itself on being so forward-thinking in so many ways, is positively regressive as concerns the institution of marriage. When it comes to forming the marriage bond, we do not allow loving, consenting adults who happen to be of the same sex to enjoy the same rights as others. When it comes to dissolving the marriage bond, we do not allow no-longer-loving, consenting adults to obtain a divorce for reasons that are real rather than fabricated so as to meet some archaic legal requirement. It is clearly time for the Empire State, as it is known, to reject a view of marriage that is more reflective of the time of the Empire of Queen Victoria than it is of the second decade of the 21st Century and at long last adopt the reforms that bar associations and citizens groups of all kinds have been demanding for years. Until that happens, the integrity of our legal system here in New York will continue to be needlessly compromised.

defendant contends that the child, who was not born until March 19, 2008, cannot possibly be his. Defendant further submits that if plaintiff is taking the position that Ethan is his child, this means that the sworn statements in his verified complaint concerning the lack of sexual relations must be untrue. As a result, defendant cross-moves for an order finding that plaintiff has violated Penal Law section 210.10, perjury in the second degree.
FACTS
The parties were married on July 1, 2006, in New York City. Fifteen months later, on or about September 7, 2007, plaintiff commenced an action for divorce based on two of the statutory grounds. One was the constructive abandonment of plaintiff by defendant for a period of one year proceeding commencement of the action (DRL §170[2])[FN2]; the other was the cruel and inhuman treatment of plaintiff by defendant (DRL §170[1]). Plaintiff ultimately relied solely on the first cause of action, constructive abandonment, in seeking the divorce.
With respect to his cause of action for constructive abandonment, plaintiff alleged in his verified complaint “that commencing on or about August 1, 2006, and continuing for a period of more than one (1) year immediately prior to commencement of this action, the defendant refused to have sexual relations with the plaintiff despite plaintiff’s repeated requests to resume such relations.” The complaint states that there are no children of the marriage.
Defendant neither interposed an answer to the complaint nor in any other way sought to contest the divorce. Instead she provided plaintiff with an affidavit in which she admitted service of the summons and complaint “based upon the following grounds: constructive abandonment DRL §170(2).” She further stated that she was consenting to the matter being placed immediately on the uncontested divorce calendar. On the same day defendant signed the affidavit, June 2, 2008, the parties, both of whom were represented by counsel, executed a [*3]separation and property settlement agreement. The agreement states that “the parties agree that the Wife shall consent to an uncontested divorce judgment being entered against her under this Index Number based upon the grounds of constructive abandonment set forth in the first cause of action of the Verified Complaint.” As with defendant’s affidavit, no mention is made of children, either born or expected.
Following the execution of defendant’s affidavit and the parties’ agreement, plaintiff promptly placed the case on the uncontested matrimonial calendar for submission. This meant that neither party had to appear in court to give testimony because the application for the divorce judgment was to be decided on the papers alone. On July 29, 2008, a judge of this court signed the judgment dissolving the marriage between the parties by reason of the constructive abandonment of plaintiff by defendant. The judgment states that there are no known children of the marriage and none are expected.
On March 19, 2008, defendant gave birth to a baby boy, Ethan. This event not only predated the divorce judgment dissolving the parties’ marriage, but was prior to defendant having signed her affidavit and the parties having entered their separation and property settlement agreement. According to plaintiff, he was never aware that defendant was pregnant and he only learned about the child after the parties were already divorced. There is no father listed on Ethan’s birth certificate.

As far divorce litigation is concerned, the above represents an extreme example of a problem that divorce lawyers often face.  If New York were to adopt some version of no-fault divorce, a great deal of litigation could be eliminated.

Child Support, Equitable Estoppel and Same-Sex Relationship

Monday, June 15th, 2009

I have previously written about issues of equitable estoppel, which may result in non-biological parent being treated as a biological parent of the child. Recently, I came across a case, H.M. v. E.T., 2009 N.Y. Slip Op. 04240 (2nd Dept. 2009) that dealt with applicability of equitable estoppel to child support in a same-sex relationship situation.

In October of 2006, H.M., an Ontario resident, and the birth mother of a 12-year-old child, filed a “Support Application” with a Canadian agency, seeking to have E.T., a Rockland County resident, and H.M.’s former same-sex partner, adjudicated a parent of the child. H.M. also sought an award of child support retroactive to the date of the child’s birth.  In support of her application, H.M. alleged that in August 1989, the parties lived in New York, entered into a monogamous relationship, and started cohabitating. H.M. alleged that the parties then agreed that she would attempt to become impregnated via artificial insemination, and that after a child was born, they would parent that child together. H.M. alleged that pursuant to this agreement, and with E.T.’s assistance and encouragement, she became impregnated by sperm from an anonymous sperm donor. In September 1994, H.M. gave birth to the child. H.M. alleged that over the next few months, E.T. acted as a parent to the child by nurturing and caring for him. However, H.M. alleged that in January 1995, E.T. ended the parties’ relationship. H.M., who subsequently relocated with the child to Canada, alleged that after the relationship ended, she made numerous requests of E.T. for child support, all of which were refused.

After the child support proceeding was commenced in Canada, the case was transmitted to the Family Court, Rockland County pursuant to the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (Family Ct Act art 5-B (hereinafter “UIFSA”).  Initially, the Support Magistrate found that under the present law of New York, there was no basis upon which the Family Court could adjudicate E.T. a parent of the subject child and require her to pay child support. In this regard, the Support Magistrate noted that E.T. was not the birth mother of the child or an adoptive parent of the child, never executed an official acknowledgment of parentage of the child, and was not in a legally recognized same-sex marriage or civil union with H.M. when she gave birth to the child. The Support Magistrate, pointing out that the Family Court is a court of law with limited subject matter jurisdiction, found no provision in Family Court Act Article 5, or in any other article of the Family Court Act, applicable to a controversy between a birth mother and another female concerning the other female’s parentage of a child. Finally, the Support Magistrate, deeming all of H.M.’s factual allegations to be true, and observing that equitable considerations might suggest that E.T. be adjudicated a parent of the child and required to pay child support, noted that the Family Court cannot grant equitable relief.

Subsequently, after the objections to the Support Magistrate’s Order were filed, the Family Court overturned the Support Magistrate’s Order citing cases where courts “held individuals responsible for the support of a child even though they were not related to the child by biology or adoption.” The Family Court observed that in those cases, the courts applied the doctrine of equitable estoppel which, the Family Court noted, will be applied in order to protect the best interests of a child born out-of-wedlock. Thus, the Family Court concluded that “a paternity proceeding [can] proceed against a same sex partner if circumstances are established justifying the [doctrine's] application.” Then, the Family Court, noting that the subject child was born as a result of E.T.’s “promises,” concluded that H.M.’s allegations, if true, could support a finding that E.T. “should be estopped [from denying] her role as a person responsible to provide support for [that] child.” Accordingly, the Family Court directed a hearing to determine whether E.T. “should be equitably estopped [from denying] her responsibility to provide support to the subject child.”

E.T. appealed from the order of the Family Court. The Appellate Division, Second Department, reversed the Family Court’s order and reinstated the order of the Support Magistrate dismissing the petition. The Appellate Division stated that the basic premise of the petition was that  H.M. who was never married to or in a civil union with E.T., sought to have E.T., a woman having no biological or legal connection to the subject child, adjudicated a parent of that child and required to pay child support. Since the Family Court received H.M.’s support application pursuant to UIFSA, it was authorized to determine “parentage” (Family Ct Act § 580-301[b][6]; § 580-701). UIFSA provides that in deciding such a proceeding, the Family Court is required to apply the procedural and substantive law generally applicable to a “similar” proceeding originating in this State, and may only exercise whatever “powers” and provide whatever “remedies” that are “available” in such a proceeding.

The only proceeding in this State “similar” to a proceeding for a determination of “parentage” is a proceeding pursuant to Family Court Act article 5. Yet, as the Support Magistrate recognized, Family Court Act article 5, entitled “paternity proceedings,” only provides a vehicle for resolving controversies concerning a man’s fatherhood of a child.  After analyzing the language of the Family Court Act, the court concluded that a paternity proceeding requires “the male party” to be “the father” of the child.

The court further held that although the doctrine of equitable estoppel can be applied in a proceeding pursuant to Family Court Act  Article 5, when the Family Court applies the doctrine, the Family Court is merely precluding a party from “denying a certain fact”.  This is not the same thing as the Family Court granting equitable relief, something the Family Court lacks the power to do. Therefore, when the Family Court applies the doctrine, the Family Court is doing so as a means of granting relief specifically authorized by the Constitution or statute. That is, the Family Court is applying the doctrine as a means of adjudicating a “male” “the father” of a child. However, H.M. has demanded certain relief the Family Court is not specifically authorized by the Constitution or statute to grant. Under these circumstances, the Family Court could not apply the doctrine, and could not reach the issues of whether E.T. should be estopped from denying her parentage of the subject child, and whether estopping E.T. from denying her parentage of the child would be in the child’s best interests. If the Family Court applied the doctrine as a means of granting relief not specifically authorized by the Constitution or statute, that would be tantamount to the Family Court granting equitable relief.

The logic of the Appellate Division’s decision, its heavy emphasis on the language of the Family Court Act, and especially the use of the term “male”, raise the question of whether a different result would have been reached on these facts if both parties to this litigation were male. Since recent decisions in this area of family law have been gender neutral, it seems likely that the Court of Appeals, if the case is appealed, will likely focus on on whether any such applications should be considered on a gender neutral basis and also, even more importantly, whether the courts will move away from “paternity by estoppel” toward “parentage by estoppel” as a matter of equity. I believe that we may learn the answer to this question in the foreseeable future.

Unmarried Fathers, Child Support and Liability for Birth Expenses of the Child and the Mother

Saturday, April 11th, 2009

In a typical child support proceeding brought under the Article 4 of the Family Court Act, the child support is retroactive to the date of the filing of the child support petition.  The Family Court is generally unable to grant child support to a date preceding the filing, unless the child is receiving public assistance.   However, where the paternity is concerned, Family Court’s powers are much broader.  Paternity proceedings are governed by the Article 5 of the Family Court Act.  Article 5 contains two sections that address child support, including costs of birth and related expenses: Section 514 and Section 545.

Under Section 514 of the Family Court Act, the father is liable to pay the reasonable expenses of the mother’s confinement and recovery and such reasonable expenses in connection with her pregnancy, as the court in its discretion may deem proper.  What makes this significantly different from child support proceeding under Article 4 of the Family Court Act, usually Sections 412 and 413, is that the mother’s expenses typically occur well before the petition is filed and even before the child is born.  While Section 514 gives the Family Court at least some discretion in apportioning such expenses, if the mother was receiving public assistance during her pregnancy, the father may be liable to the social services district furnishing such medical assistance and to the state department of social services for the full amount of medical assistance so expended.  See Wayne County Dept. of Social Services ex rel. Van Dusen v. Petty, 273 A.D.2d 943 (4th Dept. 2000).

Under Section 545(1) of the Family Court Act, the father is responsible for child support, retroactive to the earlier of the date of the application for an order of filiation, or, if the children for whom support is sought are in receipt of public assistance, the date for which their eligibility for public assistance was effective.  However, under Section 545(2) of the Family Court Act, the Family Court’s discretionary powers are much broader.  Section 545(2) provides that the court, in its discretion, taking into consideration the means of the father and his ability to pay and the needs of the child, may direct the payment of a reasonable sum or periodic sums to the mother as reimbursement for the needs of the child accruing from the date of the birth of the child to the date of the application for an order of filiation.  In my experience, in dealing with a petition brought under Section 545, the Family Court unambiguously focuses on the unwed father’s present ability to pay, as measured by his current resources and his earning capacity, and not what the unwed father’s ability to pay was at the time of birth.  This may come as an unwelcome surprise to the unwed father, if the petition is brought several years after the child is born.

Yet another difference between proceedings brought under Article 5 of the Family Court Act and Article 4 of the Family Court Act is that under Section 517 of the Family Court Act, proceedings to establish the paternity of a child, and to establish liability for mother’s expenses, may be instituted during the pregnancy of the mother or after the birth of the child.

As a lawyer frequently dealing with these issues, I  evaluate my clients’ financial situation at the time of the child’s birth and the time the petition is brought, since the court will focus on my client’s ability to pay.  I also analyze the mother’s finances within the same time frame and also the proof of payment of medical bills.  Ocasionally, these cases are won and lost on the issue of admissibility of the medical bills.

Basics of Paternity in Family Court

Monday, March 9th, 2009

Paternity is the term which describes a father’s legally enforceable rights and responsibilities to his child. Determination of paternity in New York is governed by the Article 5 of the Family Court Act. In accordance with the Family Court Act, paternity may be established in one of three ways; by presumption, by an acknowledgment, or by court order. If the parties are married at the time of the child’s birth, New York presumes that the husband is the father of any children of the marriage. While this presumption is rebuttable, the concept of equitable estoppel, previously discussed on this blog, may also be applicable and even if the presumption is rebutted, may preserve the parties’ initial positions with respect to paternity.

If the parties were not married at the time of birth of a child, legal paternity may only be established by signing an Acknowledgment of Paternity (either at the hospital or at the local Department of Social Services, pursuant to Family Court Act §516-A) or by the Family Court entering an Order of Filiation. Once an Acknowledgement of Paternity is signed, it may not be vacated after six months of signing, unless it brought about by fraud, duress or material mistake of fact. Under those circumstances, the time is extended to one year.

If the parties are not married, and paternity is challenged, the determination of paternity will be made by the Family Court. A paternity proceeding is commenced in Family Court by the filing of a verified petition from the party seeking to establish paternity. If the woman is married, and is claiming that her husband is not the father of her child, her husband must usually be named as a party to the proceeding. Once the parties are in court, they have the option to consent to an order of paternity. If the issue of paternity is resolved by consent, i.e., agreement of the parties, DNA testing does not take place. If paternity is consented to, it becomes extremely difficult to overturn a consent order of paternity in the future.

If there is no consent order of paternity, the court will generally order a DNA test. See Family Court Act §522. Once the results of the DNA test are know, the parties once again will generally have the option to consent to an order of paternity, or request a hearing. If the case goes to a hearing, it is the party seeking to establish paternity who has the burden to prove paternity by clear and convincing evidence. If, however, the probability of paternity in the DNA test is 95% or higher, New York law presumes the man is the father, and it is now his burden to overcome this presumption. At the end of the hearing, the court will consider all properly introduced evidence, and either issue an order of paternity or dismiss the paternity petition.

Parties are not required to accept the results of the tests, and the party may challenge DNA testing by attacking either the chain of custody of the samples, or the underlying mathematics of the statistical analysis. Such challenges are very difficult, and can be very expensive.

However, as noted above, under appropriate circumstances the doctrine of equitable estoppel may prevent the child and the parent from being tested and prevent the father from denying paternity. For example, if the party has alleged paternity in some other court proceeding or document, that party may be prevented from denying paternity. Similarly, if a man has held himself out to be the father of a child, he may be estopped from denying paternity in court.

The time to commence a paternity proceeding under the Article 5 of the Family Court Act is at any time during the pregnancy of the mother, or after the child is born, but not after twenty one years, unless paternity is somehow acknowledged by the father, or he paid support.

When a DNA test is ordered, the court may direct that either party pays, both parties pay or the state pays for the costs of these tests, all depending on the resources of all parties. If the father is determined to be the father, and he is the one who filed the petition, the court will likely direct that he pays the cost of the DNA test.

Having one’s name on the birth certificate, providing emotional and/or financial support, or holding oneself as the father makes one the “putative” father. That person will be named in the New York State Putative Father Registry and requires notice to such father in the event someone tries to adopt the child, the child is placed in foster care, or if someone is seeking child custody or guardianship. However, signing the Acknowledgement of Paternity, having an Order of Filiation or having been married to the mother at the time of birth makes one the “legal” father. And although the rights and responsibilities are similar, there is a legal difference between the two.

Same-Sex Spouse Needn’t Be Certified to Adopt Partner’s Child

Monday, January 19th, 2009

In November of 2008, I wrote about New York courts granting a divorce to a same sex couple. In C.M. v. C.C. (Sup. Ct. New York Co. October 14, 2008), the trial court held that the New York court had subject matter jurisdiction to grant a divorce to a same sex couple who were married in Massachussetts. The trial court held that in following Martinez v. County of Monroe and other cases dealing with recognition of the same sex marriage, it had the subject marriage jurisdiction and the divorce case between two women could continue. Since that time, we are seeing various rulings that followed the holding in Martinez. A few days ago, in Matter of Donna S., 2009 N.Y. Slip Op. 29009 (Fam. Ct., Monroe County, AC-14386-08), Judge Joan S. Kohout, held that there was no need for the same-sex spouse of a woman due to give birth in March to seek pre-certification to adopt her partner’s child. Judge Kohout ruled that because the couple’s Canadian marriage is recognized under New York law, the spouse could be treated exactly the same as the husband of a woman who became pregnant through donor insemination, in which case neither pre-certification nor an adoption proceeding would be necessary to establish a parental relationship with the child.

According to Judge Kohout’s opinion, Donna R.S. and Lisa P. were married on July 4, 2007, in Ontario, Canada. Lisa has become pregnant through donor insemination, and is due to give birth in March. Donna initiated the process of being approved as an adoptive parent, with the intention of adopting the child when he/she is born. As part of a normal adoption process, she submitted to a home study by a social worker, who produced a positive report, and then she submitted her petition to the court to be “pre-certified” as an adoptive parent, so the adoption procedure could be handled expeditiously after the child is born.

Pre-certification is a legal process that is typically handled at the start of every adoption. A successful pre-certification process is critical and involves filing pleadings with the appropriate court, a home study, child abuse clearance and criminal record check. Once a prospective adoptive parent has been precertified, he/she can proceed with pursuing a domestic adoption. The “certification” includes a homestudy, child abuse clearance and criminal record check prior to the adoption, and a follow-up homestudy before the adoption is finalized. This requirement was brought into being as a result of the infamous Steinberg case, so that all parties in the adoption process are protected.

The petition did not specify that Donna was seeking to adopt any particular child, but merely wished to be certified as qualified in general to be an adoptive parent. The home study made it clear to the court that her intention was to adopt her same-sex spouse’s child.

Judge Kohout considered the pre-certification process to be unnecessary. Pointing out that the Appellate Division’s ruling last year in Martinez means that “the marriage of same sex couples legally married in other jurisdictions must be recognized by New York,” and mentioning as well that Governor David Paterson had directed New York state agencies to “apply statutes and regulations in a gender neutral manner to same sex parties validly married in another jurisdiction,” Judge Kohout decided to treat Donna similarly to the husband of a woman who has become pregnant through donor insemination.

In those situations, an adoption proceeding is unnecessary. Spouse’s parental status is established by the parties’ execution of a consent form, indicating their agreement that the birth mother’s spouse will be the legal parent of the child.

Additionally, Judge Kohout considered an alternative approach: “Since Ms. S. is the spouse of Ms. P., she will at the very least be considered a step-parent to Ms. P.’s child after the child’s birth. Step-parents are not required to be pre-certified as qualified adoptive parents for the purpose of adopting their spouse’s child.” However, step-parents would have to fulfill a one year waiting period to adopt, or get approval to waive the waiting period from the court.

In conclusion, Judge Kohout stated that the situation could be resolved by the statute governing donor insemination, pointing out that “a child born to a married woman by artificial insemination is deemed the legal child of the husband if both spouses execute a consent to that effect. Given the holding in Martinez, it would seem that by the simple execution of a consent, Ms. S. could become the baby’s legal parent without the necessity of an adoption.”

However, since all the paperwork was in order and there was a positive home study report on file, Judge Kohout granted the pre-certification petition, so the petitioner was eligible to adopt a child until the expiration of the petition in May 2010.

Paternity and Equitable Estoppel

Monday, November 24th, 2008

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.