Paternity, the Presumption of Legitimacy and Equitable Estoppel

In cases of paternity in New York,  a child that was born during marriage is legally presumed to be abiological product of that marriage, and this presumption historically was one of the most persuasive in law. However, it’s important to note that this presumption is still subject to the sway of reason, though statements have varied regarding the sufficient evidence required to rebut such a presumption. For instance, in the context of a case wherein a child is born during a marriage, the presumption should not fail unless there is evidence to demand reconsideration. In fact, if a husband and wife live together, legitimacy is often presumed, and even if the couple are living apart, the court can provide a fair basis for the believe that a child was born as a product of times the couple were brought together.

During recent years, case law that enunciates the presumption of legitimacy in paternity cases where a child is born during a marriage has been pulled into question. This isn’t necessarily because the reasoning and logic behind that case law has changed over time, but because the passage of time have delivered new updates in technology and science that make determining legitimacy accurately, more possible. In past cases, one of the primary – if not the only determining factor in the application of a presumption of legitimacy in court was access between the husband and wife. However, as we have progressed further into modern times, DNA tests and blood tests have also acquired a new ability to sway reason. Because of this, while the presumption of legitimacy still serves a laudable purpose, it remains to be just another legal presumption that can be used when conclusive evidence to the contrary is not available.

Regardless of the changing times, the presumption of legitimacy in paternity actions requires high standards to be overcome – although the presumption might be less of an obstacle than it was historically. Today, the presumption of legitimacy may only be rebutted by “clear and convincing” proof that excludes a husband as the father. In practice, sometimes this means that the presumption prevents evidence like a paternity test being obtained. The doctrine of equitable estoppel, however, too remains an important consideration within paternity proceedings, and might be used to preserve the status of legitimacy for any child involved born of a marriage.

In addressing an issue of paternity, the New York Court must consider all aspects – including the application of equitable estoppel. To this end, it’s crucial to note that the purpose behind equitable estoppel is to prevent rights from being enforced against an individual, if the forcing of those rights would lead to some form of injustice or fraud. The process of equitable estoppel in a paternity context occurs when a person holds themselves out as the father of a child, either by providing support, or exercising parenting time. For example, equitable estoppel may be used to prevent someone from getting a paternity test ordered to find out actual biology. In these cases, if a man has represented himself as the child’s father, and the child’s best interests would be served by a declaration of fatherhood, equitable estoppel is used. To the same end, the doctrine of equitable estoppel can be invoked in paternity proceedings as a way of providing a child’s legitimacy status. In other words in a marriage where the husband has acted as the father, equitable estoppel works to protect the interests of a child who already exists within a recognized and operational child-parent relationship.

When dealing with a paternity case involving a married couple, it is crucial for courts therefore to consider the actions of the husband, regardless of whether or not the husband is biologically the father of the child. The reason for this is that if the family court can determine that the husband has acted as the father of the child, either by making use of parenting or visiting time, providing financial support, or adhering to other factors in the doctrine of equitable estoppel, which might prevent a rebuttal of the presumption of legitimacy. By applying the doctrine of equitable estoppel, the legitimacy of a child born during a marriage, i.e. the presumption of legitimacy cannot be swayed by other evidence such as DNA or blood tests. Of course, before equitable estoppel can be accessed, the family court will need to determine that such a declaration would be in the best interests of the child.

The Family Court Act makes it clear that support magistrates, who paternity cases are initially assigned to in Family Court, must refer such a case for determination by a judge if equitable estoppel is raised to contest paternity. The question remains then can a Support Magistrate decide upon presumption of legitimacy, then refer the issue of equitable estoppel to a judge for determination? My belief is, that based on case law, the two issues are so interconnected, that they must be determined together. In other words, equitable estoppel should be used to prevent the presumption of legitimacy from being rebutted, and as such, both concepts are hugely interlinked. Therefore, I believe there is a strong argument that a support magistrate should not deal with the presumption of legitimacy issue if equitable estoppel is also raised since the two matters are so connected. Rather, I submit that the best practice is for both issues to be immediately referred to a judge for determination when raised.   If a support magistrate decides an issue, in error, ultimately (not all support magistrate rulings are immediately reviewable by objections) it can be reviewed by the proper submission of written objections.

Please read through out other blog entries and web pages to learn more about equitable estoppel and cases of paternity, or call us for your free consultation. We look forward to hearing from you.

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