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If you mistakenly believe that a child is yours, will the law prevent you from disclaiming your parental responsibilities when the truth is later discovered? According to the New York State Court of Appeals, you better believe it!
In Matter of Shondel J. v. Mark D., in 1996, Shondel gave birth to a baby girl in Guyana and identified Mark D. as the child's father on the birth certificate. Although Mark was in the U.S. when the child was born, Shondel and Mark had dated the previous spring and reportedly had sexual intercourse.
Initially, all went copasetically. Mark provided financial support, signed a sworn statement acknowledging the child as his, and undertook other acts consistent with the belief that he was the child's father (like naming his daughter as the primary beneficiary of the proceeds of a life insurance policy). But several years later, the relationship with Shondel soured and, in August of 2000, Shondel commenced a Family Court proceeding to compel support payments.
At first, Mark did not contest paternity. In fact, in a Family Court proceeding commenced by Mark in September 2000, Mark reiterated that he was the child's father, openly proclaimed his love for her, and further expressed a desire to "spend quality time with her on a regularly scheduled basis." Inexplicably, during the course of the proceedings, Mark requested DNA testing, which revealed that he was not the child's biological father. (Upon receipt of these results, Mark abandoned his visitation request and severed his relationship with the child.)
At a hearing later held by the Family Court, the Judge determined that since Mark "held himself out as [the] child's father, and behaved in every way as if he was the father," he was "estopped" from disavowing his parental responsibilities. On appeal, the Appellate Division, Second Department, affirmed noting that it was in the child's best interests to prevent Mark from denying paternity. When the case reached the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals concurred with the Appellate Division finding the law of "paternity by estoppel" applied to the dispute.
Simply stated, this doctrine provides that once a parent-child bond has been established, courts will not allow an individual to walk away from the relationship, even if it is subsequently uncovered that another resorted to fraud or artifice. The key concern is to avoid the inevitable psychological damage that would ensue as a result of the sudden end of a parent's involvement in the child's life. As the Court observed:

Where a child justifiably relies on the representations of a man that he is her father with the result that she will be harmed by the man's denial of paternity the man may be estopped from asserting that denial.
Thus, in view of the current state of the law, if there is any question about one's parental responsibility, it is of critical importance that the issue be resolved at the outset. Here is how the Court put it:
Given the statute recognizing paternity by estoppel, a man who harbors doubts about his biological paternity of a child has a choice to make. He may either put the doubts aside and initiate a parental relationship with the child, or insist on a scientific test of paternity before initiating a parental relationship. A possible result of the first option is paternity by estoppel; the other course creates the risk of damage to the relationship with the woman. It is not an easy choice, but at times, the law intersects with the province of personal relationships and some strain is inevitable.
The words "some strain" read like an understatement to us. We are also uncomfortable with the "take it or leave it" approach that appears to be espoused by the decision. As Judge George Bundy Smith noted in his dissent, the Court appears to be advocating a policy that "a man never should take on a parental role unless he wants to be unconditionally responsible for the child's financial support."
We are also troubled by the fact that Shondel "misrepresented the paternity of the child for years" and during the course of the Family Court proceedings represented that she had not had sexual relations with any other man during the relevant time period, a statement proven false by the DNA test results. While the dissenter advocates an exception to the paternity by estoppel doctrine when the relationship is induced by misrepresentation or fraud, we fear that the rigid application of that standard would likely have a devastating impact on the most innocent party of all, the child that is the subject of the dispute. Clearly, a more malleable standard needs to be formulated and applied.
For a copy of the Court of Appeals's decision in Matter of Shondel J. v. Mark D., please click on the following link: