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In Rhode Island, A Mother Cannot Use Genetic Testing To Defeat a Legal Presumption of Paternity

In 1990, the Rhode Island Supreme Court considered for the first time the rights of parents whose legal presumption of paternity is later challenged during a divorce proceeding. The court held that the mother was equitably estopped from using genetic blood testing to disestablish a child’s paternity in connection with a divorce proceeding.

Petitioner and respondent began dating in the fall of 1984. Petitioner gave birth to their first child in 1986. She testified that she told respondent immediately after giving birth that the child was the child of another man. Respondent contradicted this testimony.

The parties married in December 1986. Respondent testified that he married respondent because he thought it was the right thing to do. The parties remained at his parents’ home until respondent moved out in 1987. After leaving respondent, petitioner gave birth to to their second child.

Respondent’s parents testified that petitioner failed to adequately care for the child. Moreover, a medical technologist testified that she genetically tested petitioner, respondent, and the first child, and that respondent could not possibly be the biological father.

The trial judge issued an interlocutory decision granting the petition of respondent for an absolute divorce and awarded him permanent custody of the first child, with visitation rights to petitioner.

On appeal, petitioner argued that the trial court improperly misconceived the expert testimony regarding genetic blood testing. Petitioner contended that she was entitled to full custody of the child as the natural parent.

Petitioner admitted that respondent had met the legal requirements of presumption of paternity. The parties married after the child was born, and respondent consented to being named as the child’s father on the birth certificate. Petitioner nonetheless contended that the genetic test provided the “clear and convincing” proof necessary to rebut the presumption of paternity.

The state high court expressed concern about a mother telling a man that he is her child’s father, wed, and live as a family, and then illegitimize the child during a divorce by challenging the legal presumption of paternity. After reviewing case-law from other jurisdictions, the Rhode Island Supreme Court concluded that petitioner could not defeat respondent’s presumption of paternity.

The court reasoned a mother should be equitably estopped from using genetic testing to abrogate a child’s paternity in a related divorce case. The equitable estoppel doctrine is based on the notion that a mother should be estopped from challenging paternity where the mother accepted a person as the child’s father. When the equitable estoppel doctrine applies, genetic testing is irrelevant.

The court believed the circumstances warranted application of the equitable estoppel doctrine. Respondent acted as the child’s natural father. He married petitioner based on the assumption that the child was his. He agreed to be named as the father on the child’s birth certificate. The three co-habituated and acted as a family. Petitioner never questioned respondent’s paternity until respondent filed for divorce. For these reasons, the court held that the genetic test results were not applicable because the evidence established legal paternity and actual paternity was not an issue.

Petitioner argued that regardless of the legal paternity, the trial judge improperly awarded custody to respondent because she was a more fit parent. The court held to the contrary that the evidence showed that respondent would better provide for the child. The Department for Children and Their Families domestic relations study found that respondent was a more stable parent. Further, there was evidence concerning petitioner’s unstable living arrangements and addressing petitioner’s restlessness when confronted with child-caring duties. The Rhode Island Supreme Court therefore concluded that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion.

For these reasons, the judgment was affirmed.

This case remains good law in Rhode Island, and was cited by the court in 2000 in a similar situation. There, two women agreed to become a child’s parents. They arranged for one of them to conceive via artificial insemination by an anonymous donor. Following the child’s birth, they raised him for four years while living together as domestic partners in the same household. Thereafter the women, separated but the biological mother agreed to allow the nonbiological parent to have informal visits with the child. The Rhode Island Supreme court answered whether the family court had jurisdiction over a petition brought to determine the existence of a mother and child relationship between the nonbiological parent and the child? If so, could the the family court enforce the domestic partners’ written agreement (embodied in a consent order previously entered by the court) to allow the nonbiological parent to have visitation with the child after the parents have separated. The court answered both in the affirmative.

Relying on the aforementioned case, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held family court had the power to determine the existence of a de facto parent-child relationship despite the absence of any biological relationship between the putative parent and the child.

The Maryland Court of Appeals also relied on the above-cited case the year after it was decided in a factually identical case. There, appellant filed for divorce in 1989. Appellant’s wife subsequently filed a counter-complaint. This case arose from a dispute regarding the issue of temporary custody of the child. Since the court held that the trial court erred in requiring appellant to submit to a blood test, it also concluded that the results of the blood test should not have been admitted into evidence, and that custody should not have been changed on the basis that the blood test excluded appellant as the biological father of the child. That court wrote that the Rhode Island Supreme Court applied the doctrine of equitable estoppel and concluded that a mother should be equitably estopped from using a blood test to disestablish a child’s paternity in connection with a routine divorce proceeding. The court also relied on a 1983 New York case, which held that for public policy reasons, respondent, having held her child out as the legitimate son of her husband for a substantial period of time, should be precluded from thereafter bastardizing the child for the sole purpose of furthering her own self-interest in obtaining exclusive custody of the child.

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of a divorce proceeding, our experienced insurance attorneys at Bilodeau Capalbo, LLC, are prepared to fight zealously for your rights. Call (401) 400-8182 or schedule a complimentary consultation today.

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