case citations below
Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan,
South Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Minnesota, Missouri, and Utah
were compiled by two Massachusetts attorneys and published in a
interesting article in a private newspaper allegedly serving the legal
community. The attorneys relinquished their copyright to
newspaper. If they had retained the copyright, I would have
their permission to reproduce their article intact. And, I expect, I
have had to spend hours rewriting and saving the meat from the bones.
I do not supply any attribution to the newspaper, for that newspaper has refused to give me permission to reproduce or quote from other articles in its archives.
Given that reproduction on this website is clearly for NONcommercial purpose, I shall not support the paper's unquestionable commercial purpose by linking to that newspaper from this site or by revealing its name.
Permission was denied because, I believe, I had several years ago written in a professional manner to the then-managing editor, who is now the publisher, that an article about events surrounding the prosecution of a particular case was inaccurate and incomplete.
The male's written response to me was no less than an unprovoked personal attack. (I had never even met him.) In my opinion, he was childish, immature, and unworthy of an editor of the only newspaper with an intended audience of the Massachusetts legal community. And regretfully, it was, of course, also unproductive.
Since then, it has become clear that the newspaper is unlikely to evolve into a forum where Massachusetts lawyers can share war stories and perhaps arrive at constructive ways to mend our courts more quickly than they might otherwise get mended.
was no such
still is none. And the likelihood that there will be one is slim, if
If the child is not your biological child, must you pay child support? Courts have answered, Yes, and governments have tried to collect with a fervor. See Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984, P.L. 98-378, Section 18 as codified at 42 U.S.C. sec. 667. The state cognate is Chapter 460 of the Acts of 1993.
A judge may make you pay child support not because of your legal status but because of your behavior. The judge is following the equitable doctrine of estoppel.
Under that doctrine, the court may hold that because you acted like a parent and permitted the child to rely upon you -- even though you were legally a "stranger" to the child.-- you adopted the biological or "real" parent's duty.
Once a court makes that determination, you the stepparent or friend or lover, the grandparent, or even the deceived husband, may not successfully deny a future obligation of support, because you have voluntarily in the past provided support.
So-called public policies are provided as excuses for requiring the nonbiological parent to pay or continue to pay child support when the relatioinship with the biological mother ends: the need for child support, taxpayers' relief from welfare relief, and the most insulting to a a rationale person: "society's desire to encourage, and not deter, the acts of the future `good samaritan.'"
Passing irony: A bypasser, a good Samaritan, uses extraordinary efforts to save a car-accident victim, but the victim dies anyway. The good Samaritan later suffers all kinds of pain and feelings of guilt because he was unsuccessful at saving the life of the victim. Because he was not related to the victim, he could not collect for his mental injuries. Does this encourage or deter "acts of the future `good samaritan'"?
This is result-oriented law, not justice. The courts look past the mother in the "deceipt" cases and look instead to the voluntary provider, but, in contrast, do not saddle an insurance company with payments to the good Samaritan . . . although it would encourage future acts of good Samaritanship.
Estoppel is a legal principle which, because of a person's previous act of conduct or omission, does not allow that person to assert a legal right.
The doctrine may apply when each of three elements exists: (1) an actual or implied representation which induces conduct or forbearance of another; (2) an act or omission by another, in reliance on that representation; and, (3) resulting detriment to the relying party.3
In the child support context, estoppel is a judgment in which a court concludes that a person my not equitably deny a future obligation to provide support; and thus, creates a formal and enforceable duty, where none previously existed for that person.
The triggering representation occurs when a stepparent, a grandparent or a legal "stranger" voluntarily promises to provide economically for a child to whom that person owes no legal duty of support; and/or he does so, in fact.
The relying party's conduct, or failure to act, consists of either releasing the other legal parent from his support obligation, or of failing to pursue a non-paying obligor; either at the request of the volunteer payor, or because the need to do so is eliminated by the voluntary support.
Detriment happens when the voluntary payor stops paying, but it is now too late, or futile, to seek support from the legal obligor.
Application to Child Support
In three cases, A.R. v. C.R., 411 Mass. 570 (1992), Liebson v. Liebson, 412 Mass. 431 (1992), and K.B. v. D.B., et al., 37 Mass. App. Ct. 265 (1994), the Supreme Judicial Court and the Appeals Court declined to mandate child support by estoppel. The courts did not find the facts sufficiently compelling to risk unfairly prejudicing the person who had previously given voluntarily support.
In A.R. v. C.R., the
411 Mass. at 575.
However, the SJC further stated:
In summary, the Massachusetts SJC found: the level of reliance was insufficient to outweigh the policy of encouraging voluntary help for children, because (1) the relationship between the putative obligor and child was brief, (2) the children were quite young when he objected to continued support, and (3) the children's access to support was unaffected by his actions.
In Liebson v. Liebson, the husband briefly supported his wife's niece, whom they had rescued from the neglect-ridden home of her parents. The court remained conservative and and upheld the trial judge's dismissal of the wife's action for child support by estoppel.
In K.B. v. D.B., et al., the wife had committed adultery. When she became pregnant, the husband openly doubted his paternity; but played the role of father to the child, attended her birth, placed his name on the birth certificate, arranged for her baptism, selected her godfather, lived with the mother and the child for two years, and provided financial and emotional support to the child.
The trial judge declined to order support, finding support in the genetic testing in favor of the husband and the lack of a financial detriment to be suffered by the child. Finally, the judge deferred Good Samaritan policy objective.
Despite the consistency of this case with the criteria set out by the SJC in A.R. v. C.R., the Appeals Court upheld the trial court, principally because the husband had expressed doubt about his paternity from the beginning and did not renounce paternity for the first time in order to defeat a court-imposed obligation. Also, the court did not find sufficient evidence of reliance and acknowledged the need to encourage voluntary support.
In Clevenger v. Clevenger,
App. 2d 658 (1961), the court declined to order child support by
but identified the policy and set the parameters within which the
Id., at 664.
Estoppel would have been applied if
Id. at 671.
In those circumstances, the
would have been that:
In Marriage of Valle, 53 C.A. 3d 837 (1975), another husband was estopped from denying paternity and was ordered to support his in-laws' children. The court reasoned that he and his wife had continuously represented that the children were theirs: (1) they had brought the children into California from another country, (2) they had represented the children as their own to U.S. officials and on birth certificates, (3) the children referred to the husband as "Daddy," (4) not knowing the truth, the children had no contact with or memory of their natural parents, and (5) the husband was willing to support the children if he were given custody of the children. Id., at 841-42.
Since the husband's behavior effectively precluded any realistic opportunity to re-establish the relationship between the children and their natural parents, estoppel applied. Id., at 842.
In New Jersey
A key factor in New Jersey's invocation of estoppel against a stepfather, in Miller v. Miller, 97 N.J. 154 (1984), was his active rejection of the father's efforts to provide both economic and emotional support.
In A.S. v. B.S., 139 N.J. Super. 366, aff'd 140 N.J. Super.122 (1977), a second New Jersey court stressed that 12 years of voluntary support had cut off the chance of other parental ties and that absent estoppel, the child would be left rootless.
Similarly, in Savoie v. Savoie, 245 N.J. Super. 1 (1990), estoppel theory was applied to the support of a New Jersey grandchild, in the context of the grandparent's divorce action: the grandparents had assumed in loco parentis status since the child's third day of life, effectively precluding the child of mentally incapacitated parents from being adopted.In Pennsylvania
Having heard the court in Clevenger, Pennsylvania, in Commonwealth ex rel Gonzalez v. Andreas, 245 Pa. Super. Ct. 307 (1976), used the legal doctrine of estoppel against a husband who accepted his wife's false statement that he had fathered a child born to her out-of wedlock, and who then supported the child.
Not doubting that he was the father and not wanting the child to become a public charge, the husband signed a paternity acknowledgement. He only questioned paternity after the parties separated.
Although the court's explanation was sufficient to show its reasoning, it conspicuously and provocatively failed to mention the woman's role in this sad charade:
In rejecting the husband's plea that he was supporting the child under the mistaken belief of his paternity, the court in Gonzalez further placed the responsibility on the husband to have ascertained the truth before undertaking to support, particularly where the wife had other illegitimate children.
The conclusion: In Pennsylvania, absent strong countervailing equities, such as fraud, when a "stranger" undertakes support, his misimpression of obligation will ripen into legal duty.
In Nyard v. Nyard, 156 Mich. App. 94 (1986), estoppel was upheld against a husband who knowingly committed to raising a child whom he knew to be fathered by another man and who had convinced his wife, therefore, not to place the child up for adoption.
Another court held that the time factor could be an instant: it estopped a man from denying a child-support obligation by the mere act of marrying the mother. In Johnson v. Johnson, 93 Mich. App. 415 (1970), the court ruled that since the husband-in-waiting knew the woman to be pregnant, he assumed responsibility for triggering the state's statutory presumption of paternity, theoretically cutting off recourse against the father.
But, a third court, in Tilley v. Tilley, 195 Mich. Ct. App. 309 (1992) held that the natural parents were still available for enforcement of support.
In Wisconsin, South Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Minnesota, Missouri, and Utah
In contrast, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Florida, and Virginia have declined to apply child support by estoppel. The reasons include insufficient representation of parental relationship with the child.
In re Marriage of A.J.N. & J.M.N., 141 Wis. 2d 99, 106 (1987), "mere statements" and "acting like a parent" were not enough to apply estoppel and order support.
In Walton v. Walton, 282 S.C. 164 (1984), acquiescence in name change and "friendly behavior" were insufficient to apply estoppel.
In Albert v. Albert, 415 S.E. 2d 818 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1982), the application for a birth certificate was not conclusive evidence.
In NPA v. WBA, 8 V.A. App. 246, 253-4 (1989), the court found a mistaken belief of paternity to be a successful defense.
In Berrisford v. Berrisford, 322 N.W. 2d 742 (Minn. 1982), the child was too young to have relied.
Iin S.E.M. v. D.M.N., 664 S.W. 2d 665 (Mo. Ct. App. 1984), the court found that the absence of demonstrated detriment was fatal to estoppel claims.
In Knill v. Knill, 306 Md. 527 (1986), financial detriment must be demonstrated, not merely emotional detriment.
In Wiese v. Wiese, 699 P. 2d 700,702 (Utah 1985), the mother never attempted to collect from the natural father, therefore estoppel was not appropriate.