Almost everyone has seen at least one episode of the Maury Povich Show or Jerry Springer during which the climactic moment is the announcement of whether or not the hero (or sometimes villain) of the episode is or is NOT the father. This scene is usually followed by the gentleman in question celebrating a result he expected accompanied by the plaintive sobs of the mother who was SURE that he was the father and promised he was the ONLY ONE. Despite what we see on television, challenges to paternity in Pennsylvania court are usually not as dramatic as one might think.
Traditionally, under Pennsylvania law, if a child is born to a married couple there is a rebuttable presumption that the husband is the father of the child. However, if father can prove lack of access to the mother (i.e., father was active duty military and deployed for three years and Mother has just given birth) or impossibility, then that presumption is rebutted. The situation gets somewhat more complicated when the parties are not married, which is very common today. Typically, the court will not rely on a birth certificate and will instead ask that the person at the hospital claiming to be the father sign a document called an “Acknowledgement of Paternity”. This document will be admissible in court. Even though this document can be signed at any point, it is usually done at the hospital.
Pennsylvania courts have also created a “legal fiction” called paternity by estoppel. Although this concept usually applies in cases where the parties are not married, it can, and often does apply to married couples as well. Paternity by estoppel basically means that if a man has acted like the child’s father by assuming the duties and responsibilities of being a father and worked to establish a relationship with the child, then he may be legally prevented from challenging paternity because it is not in the child’s best interest for him to do so. Courts have created this concept because they want to ensure that the child is supported and preferably supported by the parents rather than the state.
This may seem like a bind that traps beguiled men who are totally unaware of the possibility that the child is not theirs into supporting the child for eighteen years. However, putative fathers can rebut the presumption of paternity by estoppel by taking certain precautions. Specifically, if a father begins to believe that a child may not be his, if a father has access to the child, he should perform a drug store paternity test to determine if the child is theirs. If the child is not theirs, or they are unable to perform that paternity test, they should do their best to distance themselves from the child and cut off the relationship. This may seem harsh, but paternity by estoppel really begins once you believe that a child is not yours, and even though it may be hard at the beginning, it will be for the best in the end.
Another interesting point of contention is that, unlike some states, paternity can only be challenged in Pennsylvania in child support actions. Several other states have a policy opposite to Pennsylvania’s and require that paternity be established by an unwed father before granting him any kind of custody rights.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court has recently grappled with interesting questions regarding paternity including the new issues of maternity by estoppel, which it addressed in its decision addressing Sheri Shepard’s surrogacy case. For more information about paternity in Pennsylvania, contact our Pittsburgh office today