Child support action dismissed for lack of recognition of paternity

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The recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case Denelle vs. Denelle, 243 A.3d 230 (Pa. Super. 2020) addressed an interesting question regarding the intersection of signing an acknowledgment of paternity and child support.

Jamie Denelle (the mother) filed a maintenance action against Samantha Denelle (formerly named Marc Allen Denelle) (the putative parent). According to the notice, the mother and putative parent began dating when the mother was three months pregnant with the child. While the mother was pregnant, the putative parent was aware of the same and the mother informed the putative parent that Nick Medved was the biological father of the child. “During their relationship, the mother and putative parent agreed that the putative parent would not be financially responsible for supporting the child and that the mother would sue Medved for child support.”

The name of the putative parent appeared on an acknowledgment of paternity of the child as well as on the child’s birth certificate. The parties were married on November 27, 2008. During the marriage of the parties, the putative parent underwent gender reassignment surgery. The parties separated in August 2013 and the putative parent moved to Texas. The parties eventually divorced in 2017 and the mother did not seek child support from the putative parent at that time.

In 2018, after the mother had back surgery and could no longer work, she applied for public financial assistance. In order to be eligible for public financial assistance, the deputy returning officer required the mother to apply for financial assistance for the child. According to the notice, the mother then filed a maintenance claim against the putative parent. The court ordered the putative parent to pay $ 1,125 per month in child support to the mother after a support conference. After the interim support order was made, the putative parent filed a timely request for a de novo hearing. At the hearing, the mother confirmed that the putative parent was not the child’s biological father but had “signed” the papers at the hospital and that she was not seeking support from the parent. putative, but rather a court order removing the putative. name of parent on acknowledgment of paternity and birth certificate. Medved, whom the mother claims to be the child’s father, was present at the hearing and granted the mother’s request to the court ordering her to take a paternity test.

At the end of the hearing, the court of first instance “made an order, which concluded that the putative parent was not the biological father of the child, fixed the financial obligation of the putative parent at zero. and ordered the mother to file a maintenance claim against Medved. “Subsequently, the deputy returning officer filed a petition for reconsideration and, following this, the trial court held another hearing. The deputy returning officer argued that” because the putative parent had signed the acknowledgment of paternity, the putative parent was legally obliged to provide for the needs of the child even if he was not the biological father of the child. ”At the hearing, the mother maintained her position that the putative parent was not the biological father of the child, and the putative parent testified that the signature on the acknowledgment of paternity did not conform to his handwriting, that his registered address was incorrect, and that the document listed his last name was ‘Nunez-Denelle’ while at the time she used the surname ‘Denelle’ exclusively. “The putative parent also testified that she and the mother agreed that the putative parent would not be financially responsible for the child and the mother sued rait… Medved, for child support. ”At the end of the hearing, the trial court dismissed the mother’s claim for child support against the putative parent.

The deputy returning officer appealed in time and raised the following question: “Did the trial court err or abuse its discretion by failing to find that the putative parent was the legal father of the child when an acknowledgment of paternity from the Department of Public Welfare, Office of Child Support Enforcement shows the signature of the birth mother and putative parent duly attested by a representative on behalf of the Office Support Enforcement? The Superior Court said, “Pennsylvania law provides that a man can recognize paternity of a child born out of wedlock by signing a Voluntary Paternity Recognition Form. The Superior Court further cited 23 Pa.CS Section 5103 (a) as stating: “An acknowledgment of paternity constitutes conclusive proof of paternity without further judicial ratification in any action to establish alimony. According to the law, an acknowledgment of paternity can only be challenged in court on the basis of fraud, coercion or a material error of fact, which must be established by the author of the dispute by means of clear and compelling evidence. Such a dispute may take place after the expiration of a period of 60 days from the execution of the acknowledgment of receipt. In the case of SNM v. MF, 175 A.3d 333 (Pa. Super. 2017), the Superior Court declared: “when a putative father” signed the acknowledgment of paternity and presented nothing to demonstrate fraud, coercion or material error in fact, the paternity of the child was established and cannot be contested at this stage.

The deputy returning officer claimed that the trial court abused its discretion when the putative parent failed to present any evidence of fraud, coercion or error of fact to overturn the acknowledgment after the putative parent signed the acknowledgment of paternity. However, as reflected in the opinion: “here the court of first instance concluded that the putative parent had not actually signed the acknowledgment of paternity and, therefore, concluded that there was no legal basis to impose a child support obligation on the putative parent. “The trial court further stated that, because” there was no evidence to show that the acknowledgment was executed and signed by the putative parent, it was not necessary for the putative parent to demonstrate fraud , a constraint or an error of fact to annul the recognition. ”The Superior Court concluded that the record supported the conclusion that the putative parent had not signed the recognition of paternity and, therefore, was not legally bound by it. the statutory requirements of article 5103. As such, the Superior Court upheld the order of the court of first instance.

This case is an interesting case which is very specific regarding the signature of a putative parent. However, it appears that the putative parent has presented himself as the parent of the child since the birth of the child. This may be reminiscent of the doctrine of fatherhood by estoppel. Could this doctrine bind the putative parent to an obligation of support for this child? The facts in the notice do not provide details of the putative parent’s relationship and actions during the child’s life. In addition, the opinion reflects that the parties understood from the birth of the child that Medved would be financially responsible for the child and not the putative parent. In addition, it does not appear that the putative parent sought parental rights from the child at the time of the separation of the parties.

Michel E. Bertin is a partner at Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel law firm. He is co-author of the book “Pennsylvania Child Custody Law, Practice, and Procedure”. Bertin is Past President of the Family Law Section of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, Past Chair of the Family Law Section of the Philadelphia Bar Association and current co-chair of its on-call committee. . Contact him at 215-665-3280 or [email protected]


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