The Doctrine of “Estoppel” in Paternity Actions

Fathers' Rights

Fathers typically acknowledge paternity at a child’s birth (in New York by means of a notarized “Acknowledgment of Paternity” form, which has the same effect as court adjudication of paternity), or either parent will bring paternity proceedings soon after the child’s birth (typically, by either a mother seeking support or a father seeking visitation). Occasionally, however, a man finds himself summoned to court years after a child’s birth, sometimes for a child he does not know or thought had a different father. This can happen, for example, if the mother was married and did not want to destabilize her marriage, but then wished to resolve paternity during a divorce proceeding. Or it might happen where parties had a brief relationship and lived in different parts of the country. Sometimes a mother either cannot find the father, or has reasons to want to raise the child alone; but she might later go on welfare and be required to identify the father, so welfare can collect support.

Whatever the circumstances, whenever there is a delay of more than a year or so before establishment of paternity is sought, the issue of “estoppel” may be raised. “Estoppel” means that a party is prevented, or “estopped”, from asserting a claim after they have previously asserted the opposite, and others have relied on their prior assertion. In a paternity context, that can mean the court refusing to consider paternity tests: for example, if the mother knew a child was not her husband’s, but had that child growing up understanding the husband to be his or her father, it could hurt all involved (most importantly, the child), to “change things up”, and tell the child that “Daddy” was not their father.

In the above example, an estoppel objection might be brought by the mother (or even the husband), against an “outsider” asking for paternity testing; or the estoppel objection might be brought by the outside father, objecting to a paternity action brought against him after the child had already begun to grow up knowing the husband as his or her father. Conversely, the outsider might be himself estopped from denying that he is the father (and the court could refuse to consider paternity tests that might find otherwise), if he had been supporting the child or otherwise holding himself out to be the child’s father, and the child already thought of him as his or her father.

Estoppel is a complex legal doctrine, and litigants who believe that it applies to their case should seek qualified legal advice on the matter, as early in their case as possible.

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