Case Notes: Paternity by Estoppel

Establishing paternity can often be confusing. There are two major presumptions regarding paternity in Pennsylvania:

  • If Mother is married, there is a presumption that the Husband is the father. This can be rebutted by a showing of impotence or lack of access. If the presumption is rebutted, then genetic testing may be used.
  • If a man holds him out to be the Father of the child for a period of time, then he is the "legal father" for all intents and purposes. This is known as Paternity by Estoppel and is the subject of the instant case. This theory comes from the public policy concerns about the emotional damage done to a child who has formed a bond with whom they believe to be their father if that father suddenly walks away and claims no obligation to the child.

In V.E. v. W.M. 54 A.3d 368 (Pa. Super. 2012), Mother gave birth to a child and nine days later filed for child support against W.M. W.M. filed objections to this request for support arguing that it was, in fact, his father who was the father of the child. W.M. argued paternity by estoppel - W.M.'s father had signed the birth certificate and held the child out as his own. The trial court denied his objections and found that paternity by estoppel was not applicable in the instant case because only nine days had elapsed from the birth of the child. The public policy reasons behind paternity by estoppel were not implicated.

The Superior Court affirmed this reasoning as a nine day old child could not have formed any meaningful bond with the presumptive father.

The basic rule is this: If a child would be harmed by changing the "father", then the court will not do it. For example, the court will not pull the rug out from a child who has believed that "Bob" has been his father for nine years, even if "Tom" is the biological father. Bob will be able to obtain the same custody as any parent and have the same support responsibilities as any parent - even though he is not the biological father.

However, if a child would not be harmed by changing the "father", then Paternity by Estoppel does not apply.