Last week we addressed the issue of the presumption of paternity in married couples in Pennsylvania. This week, we will address the “myth” of paternity by estoppel in Pennsylvania child custody and support cases. Many people believe that paternity is based on the genetic code, and, in most cases, it is. However, Pennsylvania courts have developed the concept of paternity by estoppel in cases where it would be more detrimental for the child to learn their father was not their father than it would be to have someone who is not the biological father have standing to seek custody or to pay support.
Paternity by estoppel occurs in instances when a person is prevented or “estopped” from denying parentage of a child based on their consistent behaviors of building a relationship with the child and holding the child out as their own. This occurs most often in cases where a Father may have had an idea what he was not the father of the child but continued to act as father and present himself to the outside world as Father for several years. This man has built a relationship with the child. If, all of a sudden, after Mother and Father part ways, Father begins to deny the child is his, this could have a serious negative impact on the child. This concept is strongly tied to the fact that all child custody laws in Pennsylvania are governed by a best interest standard. It is not in the interest of a child who has believed that someone is their father for their entire lives to suddenly discover that they are not. This concept is also sometimes applied in cases of step-father when the father is unknown. In such cases a man, who everyone knows or believes is not the father of the child is able to seek custody of the child and may be obligated to pay support.
Estoppel usually requires that the parent know or have an idea that they are not the father of the child, but continue to act as though they are. As a result, family law attorneys are often faced with the harsh reality of telling an alleged father to sever all ties with the child if they are not sure that it is their child. If you have any questions about how paternity by estoppel may impact your custody or support case in Pennsylvania, contact our Pittsburgh office today!