Presumption of Paternity

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The Pennsylvania courts examine paternity issues by assessing the applicability and potential rebuttal of the presumption of paternity. If this presumption is irrelevant or refuted, the court evaluates the application of paternity by estoppel.

The presumption is irrebuttable absent evidence the husband lacked access to the wife during the period of conception or that the husband was unable physically to procreate. In cases where the presumption does not apply or has been rebutted, the court must consider whether paternity by estoppel applies. Estoppel prevents a party from denying a parental role that he or she has voluntarily assumed.

These legal principles serve two public policy purposes.

  1. First, the presumption was intended to shield a child from the stigma attached to illegitimacy, which historically subjected the child to legal and social discrimination.
  2. Second, the presumption serves to preserve marriages and families. Courts recognize a married couple living together and raising their children “have obvious interests in protecting their family from unwanted intrusions of outsiders (even ones who have had serious relationships with the mother, father, or children).”

B.C. v. C.P. and D.B. involved a married couple who experienced a tumultuous relationship. Between their marriage in 2016 and the initiation of a paternity challenge in 2021, the couple separated on three occasions. During their first separation in 2018, Mother engaged in an intimate relationship with another man, B.C. At times during her pregnancy and after the child’s birth, she informed both men they were the child’s father. The couple reconciled prior to birth and the Husband was present when the Mother delivered and was listed as Father on the child’s birth certificate. 

Nine months later, the couple separated again and Mother moved into B.C.’s residence. B.C. assumed parental and financial responsibilities while Husband continued to see the child on weekends during the separation.  Four months later, Mother and B.C.’s relationship ended, Mother returned to Husband’s home, and the couple reconciled. Later that year, the couple separated for a third and final time.  During this separation, Husband filed for divorce, and a custody order was entered granting Mother and Husband shared physical and legal custody. The couple later resolved their differences, reconciled permanently, and chose not to proceed with the divorce. 

Eight months after their final reconciliation and when the child was 18 months old, B.C. filed a complaint to establish paternity. In response, Mother and Husband filed a motion to dismiss, citing the presumption of paternity. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, finding the presumption of paternity was inapplicable because the evidence failed to demonstrate the couple “remained in an intact marriage” due to their multiple periods of separation. Consequently, the trial court directed the parties to appear for paternity testing.  The couple appealed this decision to the Superior Court.

The Superior Court affirmed the trial court concluding the presumption was inapplicable and similarly concluded the couple “gave up the benefit of presumption,” when they separated, particularly considering that, during one of the separations Mother and B.C. resided together and raised the child together.  Because the presumption was inapplicable, the Superior Court found the trial court did not err by rejecting the couple’s argument that B..C. was estopped from seeking a paternity test.  The couple then appealed the matter to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court

In its opinion, the Supreme Court acknowledged the appellate courts have trended toward narrowing the application of the presumption of paternity to more accurately reflect the societal realities of the times. However, it underlined that the single circumstance under which the presumption of paternity continues to apply and, indeed, is irrebuttable, is where there is an intact marriage to preserve. It then addressed the fact-specific inquiry of whether a marriage is intact and how periods of separation affect this determination.  Here, the facts indicated the couple “is living together with the child as a family, and their marriage is strong, notwithstanding the multiple contentious periods of separation that the couple endured.”  The court emphasized the importance of preserving intact marriages and criticized the lower courts for overemphasizing the periods of separation. Therefore, the Court reversed the Superior Court and remanded to the trial court with instructions to grant the Couple’s motion to dismiss B.C.’s paternity action.

Justice Wecht, in a concurring opinion, expressed frustration with the lack of legislative guidance in this area of law. He proposed a multi-factor statutory test for paternity determinations, considering elements like DNA test results, the child’s relationship with the parents, the emotional well-being of the child, and the child’s bond with the parents. The Justice urged the legislature to provide clarity in paternity determinations to avoid inconsistent interpretations by individual judges.

[View source.]

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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