Recently, the court evaluated Pennsylvania’s legal doctrines of presumption of paternity and the doctrine of paternity estoppel in B.D. v. C.P. and D.
In Pennsylvania, a child conceived or born during an intact marriage is presumed to be the husband’s child, or a child of the marriage (presumption of paternity) even if the husband is not the biological father. That presumption led to another doctrine (doctrine of paternity estoppel) which prevented third parties from suing for paternity or custody, even if there was a question of paternity where the husband is holding the child to be his own, regardless of the biological relationship between the husband and the child.
The court only allowed actions by a paramour if the “family unit was not intact” – if the parents had divorced or separated after conception but before the child’s birth. Here, the court applied changes in modern family dynamics in its decision applying these two doctrines.
Background in the Case:
The child’s mother and her husband married in September 2016. In 2017, the mother met her paramour at an inpatient treatment center, and the two communicated through social media throughout the Spring of 2018. In July 2018, the mother and her husband separated, and the mother remained in the marital home.
The mother and her paramour saw each other three times during October 2018, and had unprotected sex during at least one of those times. Soon after that, she and her husband rekindled their marriage, and also had unprotected sex in late October 2018. On November 4, the mother and her husband reconciled, and he moved back into the marital home.
The mother realized she was pregnant in March 2019, but did not know when the child had been conceived. At that time, she told her husband that the child was his, and told her former boyfriend that the child was not his (after he discovered her pregnancy via social media). After the child was born in June 2019, her husband was listed as the father on the child’s birth certificate.
However, after the birth, the mother visited her former boyfriend’s home with the child, and in August 2019, told the former boyfriend that he was the biological father. Soon, the former boyfriend was seeing the child on a weekly basis and would babysit while the mother worked. In April 2020, the mother and her husband separated again, and she moved in with her former boyfriend.
During this time, the mother and the boyfriend told friends and family that he was the baby’s biological father, and the boyfriend assumed parental duties. However, in August 2020, they ended their relationship. That last time that the former boyfriend saw the child was in November 2020.
Between August 2020 and January 2021, the mother and her husband had reconciled, separated, and then reconciled again. Finally, the husband filed for divorce, and a custody order was entered awarding shared custody to the mother and the husband. The f boyfriend said he did not seek custody during this time because he was still receiving in-patient care at the rehabilitation center. The husband and the mother ultimately chose not to proceed with the divorce, and they remain together.
The former boyfriend sued for a paternity test. The trial court held that the presumption of paternity does not apply, and neither does the doctrine of paternity by estoppel, therefore, they allowed the paternity test.
While at one time any child born during the course of a marriage would qualify for paternal presumption, the court has said that, “Today, however, separation, divorce, and children born during marriage to third party fathers is relatively common, and it is considerably less apparent that application of the presumption to all cases in which the child was conceived or born during the marriage is fair.”
In recent cases where paternity of the child was in question, the court looked at the legal significance of the couple’s separation, as well as the “intactness” of the marriage and family unit.
If in this case the husband and wife had divorced, then the court could determine that neither the marriage or the family unit was intact. However, the couple reconciled. Here, the child was conceived while the marital couple was separated. After the child’s birth, the couple separated two more times. Importantly, during one of these separations, the mother lived with her former boyfriend and held him out as the father. It’s not merely that the mother and her husband were separated; it’s that during this separation, the mother lived with the boyfriend and they raised the child together. At that point, the mother and her husband “gave up the benefit of the presumption.”
The court reasoned that because the couple claimed that the past year had made their marriage stronger, a paternity test would confirm or disprove what they had likely considered a “very real probability.”
Doctrine of Paternity by Estoppel
The doctrine of paternity by estoppel is the legal determination of whether someone’s actions (caretaking of a child, holding the child out to be their own, financially supporting a child) should determine a child’s parentage, instead of their actual biological parent. The idea is based on the child’s best interests, and that children should be secure in knowing who their parental figures are, even if one of their parents isn’t biologically related to them.
Even though the mother in this case held out her husband to be the biological father, and even though the husband always thought of himself as the father, those arguments alone were not enough to stop the boyfriend from establishing paternity, according to the trial court.
In summary, the court found that the parents could not rely on the presumption of paternity when the mother and the husband had been separated at the time of conception, and she had held both the husband and the boyfriend out as the biological father at different times. The court also determined that the doctrine of paternal estoppel did not apply in this case either, because it will only be applied “when it had been demonstrated that applying the doctrine is in the best interests of the child.”
Here, the timing of the separation, the timing of conception, holding the child out to be both her husband’s and her former boyfriend’s, as well as allowing the boyfriend to visit with the child, all led to the decision that a paternity test was not an abuse of the trial court’s discretion.
If you have a question about presumption of paternity, contact your legal counsel or one of the Family Law attorneys at KingSpry.