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Not the Daddy! The Relevance of Paternity by Estoppel to Custody Cases

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A recent article in the Legal Intelligencer discussed the application of the concept of paternity by estoppel to a custody case recently decided by the Pennsylvania Superior Court. Paternity by estoppel is the concept whereby once a man has been held out as a child’s father, his paternity cannot be later denied. It is most often used in child support cases.

However, in the recent case of T.E.B. v. C.A.B. v. P.D.K. Jr., the court applied the issue of paternity estoppel to a custody case involving divorced parents and the mother’s lover, who was the biological father of the child. The child was conceived during the mother’s marriage.

After the child was born, the biological father filed a complaint for partial custody. The mother and her soon-to-be ex-husband denied his request for a paternity test and filed preliminary objections, in which the mother stated she was “shocked” to receive the custody complaint because she had always held out her husband as the father of the child. The court granted the mother’s preliminary objections and dismissed the biological father’s complaint with prejudice.

However, the mother and her husband subsequently separated, and mother filed for custody. After the biological father filed a petition to intervene in the custody matter, he ended up becoming engaged to and living with the mother. The trial court granted his petition to intervene, and at a custody hearing, the conference officer granted shared custody to the mother and her ex-husband.

The Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling, in part because the Husband failed to take the procedural steps necessary to preserve the paternity by estoppel issue on appeal.

However, the Court also explained the concept of paternity by estoppel, highlighting that it should be applied to serve the best interests of the child. The Court explained that if a child has known someone to be his or her father, he should not have to suffer the potential trauma of learning later on that someone else is, in fact, his father.

In its opinion, the Superior Court noted that even though the trial court refused to invoke the concept to deny the biological father’s right to intervene, the trial court did invoke paternity by estoppel when it allowed the ex-husband to continue his relationship with the children, even though he was not the biological father.

This case highlights the complexity of Pennsylvania’s child custody law. If you or a family member is facing a custody issue, please contact the dedicated family law attorneys of Petrelli Previtera.

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