No Blood Testing Allowed in Paternity Case

October 01, 2013 | Child Support, Court Decisions, Legal Perspective

Icon for author Brian Vertz Brian Vertz

A recent decision of the Superior Court examined the “best interests” standard in paternity cases. R.K.J. v. S.P.K., 2013 Pa.Super. 259 (September 26, 2013).  R.K.J. (“Mother”) gave birth to a child, and her boyfriend S.P.K. (“Father”) signed an acknowledgment of paternity in the hospital, even though he knew that he was not the biological father. What he didn’t know is that Mother was not yet divorced from R.J., Jr. (“Husband”) but merely separated. Mother and Father continued to live together, with the child, for the first six years of the child’s life. Meanwhile Mother’s divorce was finalized. The child called Father his “Dad,” and both parents held out Father as the child’s father. Mother’s husband was apparently never involved with the child.

When Mother and Father broke up, Mother sued Father for child support, and Father demanded a paternity test. The trial court denied his request for genetic testing, applying the doctrine of paternity by estoppel. Paternity by estoppel is a legal principle which forces parents to stick to their guns; if they have acted as though a man is the father of a child, by providing support and holding him out to the community as the child’s father, then it does not matter whether he actually is. For legal purposes, the father will be prevented from contesting the child’s paternity, and he must pay child support. He may also have custody or visitation rights, and no other man can claim to be the child’s father for legal purposes.

In the case we are discussing, a child support order was entered against Father, and he took an appeal. The Superior Court held that the trial court had made the right decision, and affirmed their order. Father asked the Supreme Court to review. Just then, the Supreme Court issued its decision in another paternity case, K.E.M. v. P.C.S., 38 A.3d 798 (Pa.2012), which created a new standard for judging paternity by estoppel. Specifically, the Supreme Court held in K.E.M. that paternity by estoppel would be applied only if it served the best interests of the child.  Because this case was pending in the Supreme Court when K.E.M. was issued, the Supreme Court remanded this case to the trial court, for a determination of the child’s best interest.

On remand, Father renewed his request for paternity testing, asking the court to take samples from himself, Mother’s husband, and a third man that she claimed to be the child’s father. Father also presented a Motion for Joinder, asking the court to join the putative father as a party to the action. The trial court appointed a guardian ad litem for the child and ordered an evaluation of the child by a court-appointed psychologist. After a hearing, the trial court denied Father’s motions and reaffirmed its child support order against Father, under the paternity by estoppel doctrine. Father filed a second appeal, which is source of this newest Superior Court decision.

In his appeal, Father argued that the child’s psychological best interests should trump his economic best interests, when applying the standard for paternity by estoppel under K.E.M.  He also argued that it was not in the child’s best interest to perpetuate a legal fiction; and that K.E.M. contained a presumption of paternity in favor of the child’s biological father, which implied that the child’s actual father must be a party to the proceedings.

The Superior Court identified a quotation from K.E.M., in which the Supreme Court had cited a prior Superior Court opinion frowning upon the perpetuation of a fraud upon a child. Yet, the Court did not vaunt psychological factors above all other factors in determining a child’s best interests in paternity cases. Elsewhere in K.E.M. the Supreme Court listed at least three factors — continuity, financial support, and psychological security — that a court must consider.

The Superior Court reviewed a thorough evidentiary record to support its conclusion that Father’s paternity served the child’s best interests, both economically and psychologically. The court noted that the child’s biological father had never been involved in the child’s life, while Father had developed a close, loving bond during their six years together. The Court also held that it was not necessary to evaluate Mother’s husband and the putative father.

In the last five pages of its Opinion, the Superior Court dispelled the notion that K.E.M. creates a presumption in favor of the biological father in paternity by estoppel cases. The Court distinguished this case from V.E. v. W.M., 54 A.3d 368, 369 (Pa. Super. 2012), in which the biological father was designated as the child’s legal father. In that case, the child was only 9 days old when the support action was commenced, and no bond had yet developed between the child and any putative father. Furthermore, insufficient time had elapsed to judge whether mother’s own conduct warranted estoppel. The Superior Court examined the context in which the Supreme Court had stated in K.E.M. that “all things being equal,” the court should assign responsibility to the biological father. That statement referred to the children of “broken marriages” who had never developed an emotional attachment to a “psychological” or “biological” father. Thus, the Superior Court inferred that the Supreme Court did not intend to establish a presumption in favor of biological parents. Finally, the Court held that this case was distinguishable, in that the child and Father had bonded for six years prior to the commencement of the support action. The trial court’s decision on remand was affirmed.

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