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Paternity and equitable estoppel, when does DNA not matter?

May 13, 2018

In the state of New York, state legislators have passed the New York Family Court Act. This act allows for paternity proceedings to be started at any time during the pregnancy as well as until the child is 21 years old. If any party moves for a DNA test, the law allows the court to order the genetic marker testing or DNA test. The exception is if the court writes a motion testifying that the paternity test isn’t in the best interests of or relevant to the child because of equitable estoppel. Equitable estoppel is the presumption of a child’s legitimacy when the child is born to a woman who is married, or the presumption of a child’s legitimacy when the issue has been previously determined. In these situations, courts wouldn’t allow a paternity test. We are New York City lawyers who can support all sides of a potential estoppel issue.

Most cases involving family law and children will proceed according to the best interests of the child. This means that in order for a court to order a paternity test, they must first rule that said paternity test would be in the child’s best interests. The concept of equitable estoppel is the ability to stop rights from being enforced against a person if that enforcement would result in injustice or fraud. This occurs when someone has claimed to be the father of a child, and takes on all responsibilities of a father, regardless of whether or not they are the child’s biological parent. People can claim fatherhood responsibilities by providing support or parenting time to a child.

The New York Court of Appeals, which is the highest ranking court in the state, has ruled that a person may invoke equitable estoppel for the protection or a father-and-child relationship that has previously been established. The deciding case was Matter of Shondei v. Mark D. The case was argued in 2006 and recognizes the quandary faced by potential fathers. When a man doubts his paternity of the child, he needs to make a decision before he takes any responsibility for the child. He must choose whether or not to request that the child’s DNA be tested.

Such an action can cause strain between the potential father and the mother of the child for obvious reasons. The man’s other choice is to take on fatherhood responsibilities without ordering a paternity test. In this case, equitable estoppel would keep him from being able to order a paternity test later, and he would be considered the child’s father by law forever. Because he’s taken on the responsibilities of fatherhood, the court might later rule that it is not in the best interest of the child for a DNA test to be allowed. The person who took on fatherhood responsibilities could have done so believing they were the legitimate biological father, but they still would not be able to get a DNA test either. If the child relies on the knowledge that the assumed father is their real father, estoppel might apply to the case.

That said, it’s not enough for one of the parties to claim estoppel. They must provide proof and convincing evidence for the court to apply the doctrine and block a genetic test. This means that they must prove that the party requesting the genetic test has taken on fatherhood responsibilities either through financial providence or parental time spent with the child. They must also prove that it’s important to the child’s health and wellness that the individual continue to be recognized as the child’s father.

The following factors will be considered when a court rules whether estoppel is valid or not:

How important it is for the child to know who their biological parent is
The likelihood of other people to take responsibility for fatherhood or claim to be the father
Potential trauma that a paternity test could cause the child
Whether the lack of paternity knowledge would harm the father-and-child relationship if testing isn’t allowed

If elements are not shown to prove that estoppel is necessary in a prima facie showing, the court may refuse to apply it even without a hearing. Prima facie means that the court can deny the appeal if the initially submitted papers don’t provide the relevant evidence to invoke estoppel.

Estoppel isn’t limited to fathers; it can apply both to men and women. In one case, estoppel was applied to stop an individual woman from having her husband submit a DNA test after he and the child had already formed a paternal relationship for more than two years. In the same vein, if a man claims he is the child’s father after another individual has taken on fatherhood responsibilities, and the child has a strong relationship with the original father, estoppel may be invoked to prevent the new claimant from taking a DNA test. This is to protect the child from potential loss of their known parent and psychological harm.

Whether paternity is established through estoppel or a DNA test, the establishment can affect certain obligations and rights of the child. Potentially affected factors include child support, visitation, custody, and inheritance. Case law originally initiated estoppel, but it is now codified into the New York State statutes.

The invocation of estoppel will always be done on a case-by-case basis, and it will depend on the circumstances that have been reviewed by a judge. If estoppel is invoked, an individual who has taken on fatherhood responsibilities will not be able to take a DNA test. They will legally be considered the child’s father regardless of whether or not the child is biologically theirs. Estoppel can apply even in cases where the assumed father did not know the child might not be his biological child, because if a test would potentially traumatize the child or deprive them of their parent, the court will rule against it.

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