Case Notes: The future of Paternity by Estoppel

In my blog post of April 25th, 2013, I addressed a recent court case involving "Paternity by Estoppel". Paternity by Estoppel prevents a man who has acted as a father towards a child for a significant period from being declared a "non-parent" - even if the man is not the biological father The intent is to avoid devastating a child who has considered the man his father for a period of time. This controversial doctrine has gone through much tinkering and changing in the appellate courts, and a decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has limited its application.

In K.E.M. v. P.C.S., 38 A.3d 798 (Pa. 2012), Mother gave birth to a child while still married to her Husband. Mother admitted to Husband that she had an affair, and a later DNA test indicated that Husband was not the father. Defendant in this case, P.C.S, was Mother's long time paramour and the biological father to the child. Despite knowing that the child was not his, Husband stayed married to Mother. The child took Husband's last name and even called him daddy. However, the biological father simultaneously maintained a lesser relationship with the child.

Husband eventually filed for divorce from Mother, and Mother filed for child support against Biological Father (who earned more than Husband). In turn, Biological Father alleged that Husband could not deny paternity and cited Paternity by Estoppel. Essentially, Biological Father argued that the child knew Husband to be her father, and Husband could not deny it now. However, the Court agreed with Mother that the doctrine of Paternity by Estoppel was now too broad as it served to deny her petition for support.

The Court restricted its application and stated that "paternity by estoppel continues to [apply] in Pennsylvania, but it will apply only where it can be shown, on a developed record, that it is in the best interests of the involved child."

Essentially, the court found that a biological father cannot hide behind the "paternity by estoppel" theory without showing that the "estopped" father had a relationship which, if now denied, would harm the child.

This case is a prime example of how courts will focus on the best interests of a child, regardless of the shady conduct of a parent. It is also an example of how an experienced attorney might have changed the outcome by recommending different behavior to his client.