Paternity and equitable estoppel, when does DNA not matter?

Yawning sleeping baby on colorful towels stackThe New York Family Court Act dictates that paternity proceedings can be initiated any time from the pregnancy of a mother until the child is 21 years of age.  If a party makes a motion for DNA testing, the law provides that the court should order DNA or genetic marker testing unless the court finds, in writing, that the test is not in the best interest of the child due to equitable estoppel, the presumption of legitimacy of a child born to a married woman, or res-judicata (a Latin term that means the issue has already been judicially determined).  In any of these instances the court would not allow the test.  As a New York City area, Long Island and Nassau County Child Support Lawyer, I have represented people on both sides of the estoppel issue.  This blog will go into further explanations about equitable estoppel, which I have touched upon in other articles about child support and paternity.

As in most family law cases involving children, the finding to apply equitable estoppel must be found to be in the child’s best interests.  Equitable estoppel is designed to not allow rights to be enforced against someone that would result in fraud or injustice.  Equitable estoppel occurs when someone has held himself out as the father of a child.  Someone may hold themselves out as the father of the child which, can commonly be done by exercising parenting time or providing support.

The highest court in New York State, the New York Court of Appeals has held that it is proper to invoke equitable estoppel to protect an already recognized child and father relationship that is in place.  The case is Matter of Shondel v. Mark D., 7 NY3D 320 (New York Court of Appeals 2006).  The court recognizes a big quandary faced by potential father’s in this case.  If a man has doubts about whether or not he is the father, he has a choice to make before starting the father / child relationship.   He can request a DNA test before assuming the role of father.  This, of course, can have the effect of causing a strain on the relationship between him and the mother.  On the other hand, he can jump right into the role of father and might be precluded from ever getting a paternity test again and being forever defined by the law as the father.  It’s a tough dilemma because a court can later find that it is not in the child’s best interest to allow DNA testing because he has held himself out as the father.  It is not required that the person who holds himself out as the father did so knowing that this representation was false.  If someone, namely the child, justifiably relies on this representation, whether factual or not, estoppel can apply.

It is not enough, however, for someone to simply claim estoppel, rather, they must show admissible proof and prove by clear and convincing evidence the elements for a court to apply the doctrine and now allow genetic testing.  Some of the relevant factors to be weighed to determine the child’s best interests are:  the importance for a child of knowing the true identity of their biological parent; whether other people might likely be show or likely discovered that could be the father; any trauma allowing the test might have on the child; and whether not knowing the actual paternity might have an effect of the child’s relationship with the father if the test is not allowed.  If the elements are not shown, by what is called a prima facie showing, the court may refuse to apply estoppel without holding a hearing.  Prima facie, is another Latin term which means “at first appearance” or that the evidence is sufficient, if not rebutted, to prove a proposition.  In this case it means that the court can deny the hearing if the papers themselves have not alleged sufficient facts to establish equitable estoppel.

Estoppel can be applied to men or women as the case law has illustrated.  For example, it was applied to prevent a woman from asking her husband to submit to a DNA test after she permitted him and the child to from a parental relationship for two and a half years.  Likewise, a man who steps forward to claim he is the father, after allowing someone else to live in that role, and establish a strong father child bond may be estopped from making that paternity claim.

The establishment of paternity, whether by DNA or estoppel, can affect rights and obligations like inheritance, custody, visitation, and child support.  Estoppel, which was initiated by case law, is now codified in the New York statutes.   Hopefully, this article has provided a little more illustration about the topic, but there are many cases on the topic that can not be all referenced in a blog entry.  As with most issues, it is a facts sensitive issue.  The Shondel case explained that the policy behind equitable estoppel is to not allow someone to claim a right after leading someone to form a belief, that is reasonable, that the right would not be claimed, and the other person would be harmed therefore if the right was then asserted.

Please check out our website and other articles for more information about family law, matrimonial law, mediation, collaborative law and your specific questions.  Call about your free consultation as well.  It would be our pleasure to speak with you about it.