It's non unusual for men to embrace the responsibilities of fatherhood for the children of their partners, with or without a formal adoption. Fathers may also assume responsibility by signing the birth certificate of a non-biological child, or by a signed a voluntary acknowledgment such as a certificate of parentage. Problems can arise, however, when the parents divorce or separate, and the father objects to paying child support for a child that is not his. The dilemma here is that the father was aware that the child was not his, and still chose to assume the role of a parent.
If the father was aware that he was not the child's biological parent, the doctrine of equitable estopple may be applied in order to prevent the father from denying child support or seeking reimbursement. In essence, equitable estopple is a legal remedy that stops one party from asserting rights and legal options, to which they would normally have access. The reason for denying these rights and legal actions would be based on the party's former words and conduct, which are contrary or inconsistent with the rights they are claiming. Hence, a litigant who voluntarily signed a birth certificate or certificate of parentage, knowing that he was not the father, may be stopped from terminating child support based on equitable estoppel.
This is quite different than a case of paternity fraud, in which a man was clearly misled into believing that a child was his. In that case, the father may seek relief under The New Jersey Parentage Act, although suing for reimbursement from the mother is tricky, since the support legally belongs to the child. Still, the law does allow any person who financially provided for a child under fraudulent circumstances to apply for reasonable reimbursement of support expenses, but such actions must be brought within 5 years of the child attaining the age of majority (18 in New Jersey). Generally, the process begins with a paternity test, which is pretty much the only way to overcome the presumption of parentage as established under N.J.S.A. 9:17-43(b). The parties can submit to testing before the filing of the paternity suit, but there are many cases in which the mother refuses to have the child tested, or disputes the test results. These issues are discussed at a “consent conference”, which is normally scheduled after the paternity filing. After hearing from both parties, the court will either issue an order for testing, or dismiss the request for testing.
The consent conference is often the most challenging aspect of any paternity suit since both sides will need to establish “the reasonable-possiblity threshold of paternity or non-paternity” prior to genetic testing, according to N.J.S.A. 9:17-48(d). Thus, it's important for to work with an experienced attorney if you have reason to doubt that you are a child's biological father. For more information on paternity suits and child support reimbursement rights as a non-biological father, please contact the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.