In paternity cases in New York, there is a doctrine referred to as “equitable estoppel.” Typically, the doctrine is applied in instances where a man has held himself out to be a child’s father and later seeks to deny paternity or to disprove paternity through DNA testing. In such cases, it has been established that it is not in the best interests of the child to disturb the father-child relationship that the putative father has established or to disturb the financial support that the putative father has provided. Thus, the father is stopped from denying paternity.
In the case of Seth P. v. Margaret D., it is the father who petitioned the court to stop the mother from denying that he is the father of her twins. The mother of the children was married to another man at the time that she had a sexual relationship with the petitioner. For the first 8-9 years of the children’s lives, the mother allowed the petitioner visitation. She treated him as if he was the father of the children and allowed him to develop a relationship with the children. In 2008 the mother changed her behavior and stopped allowing the petitioner access to the children. In other words, she stopped treated him as if he was the father of the children. It is unclear as to why the mother’s behavior changed. As a result of the mother denying the petitioner access to the children, the putative father petitioned the court to establish paternity. Using the doctrine of equitable estoppel, the court adjudicated that the petitioner was the children’s legal father.
This case is notable because the court adjudicated the petitioner to be the father of the children even though the mother was married to another man at the time the children were born. Typically, if a mother is married when her child is born, her husband is deemed the father of the child, regardless of whether he was the biological father of the child. However, because for several years the mother effectively acknowledged that the petitioner was the father of the children by allowing him to establish a parent-child relationship with each of the children, the presumption was essentially rebutted by the actions of the mother and the petitioner.
It is also important to note that the court adjudicated the petitioner to be the father of the children without requiring DNA proof. This means that it is not certain that the petitioner is the biological father of the children. The court decided that it did not matter whether the petitioner was the biological father. More important than biology was the emotional connection that the petitioner developed with the children over 9 years. The court applied the doctrine of equitable estoppel because it was in the best interests of the children to maintain the relationship that they had established with the petitioner.
While New York law allows that a paternity proceeding can be initiated at any time until the child’s 21st birthday, it is best for all parties involved to take steps to definitively establish paternity as early in the child’s life as possible.