THE PARENT TRAP
September 28, 2010 § 5 Comments
We should all be familiar with the landmark case of Williams v. Williams, 843 So.2d 720 (Miss. 2003), in which the Mississippi Supreme Court held that it “refuse[s] to sanction the manifest injustice of forcing a man to support a child which science has proven not to be his.” In Williams, the father did not know until well after he was ordered to support the child that it was not his, and he had little contact with the child in the intervening years before he filed an action to terminate support. The Williams court, however, added this caveat:
“We do not hold that a man who is not a child’s biological father can be absolved of his support obligations in all cases. Those who have adopted a child or voluntarily and knowingly assumed the obligation of support will be required to continue doing so.” [Emphasis added]
Fast forward to 2009.
In the case of Lee v. Lee, 12 So.3d 548 (Miss. App. 2009), the Court of Appeals considered the appeal of Gregory Lee, Sr.
Mr. Lee had performed a home DNA test and discovered that there was a zero probability that one of the chilren he thought he had fathered was biologically his. Soon after the unfortunate discovery, Mr. and Mrs. Lee filed a joint Complaint for Divorce. Notwithstanding the DNA test results, the complaint alleged that the child was their indeed child, and their property settlement agreement provided for Mrs. Lee to have custody and for Mr. Lee to pay her support.
Two years after the divorce, Mr. Lee filed a petititon to modify and asked for DNA testing, which confirmed the home-test result that he was not the child’s father.
The Chancellor refused the modification, holding that Mr. Lee had voluntarily undertaken the duty to support the child with full knowledge that the child was not his, and under Williams, he could not be relieved of the support duty that he had assumed voluntarily.
On appeal, Mr. Lee argued that he had not been 100% convinced by the home test that he was not the father, and it was only when he got the court-ordered DNA test results that he knew conclusively for the first time of his non-paternity. He also pointed out that the home test was not legally binding, while the court-ordered test was.
The appellate court brushed aside the argument because Mr. Lee’s own inartfully drawn petition to modify stated that he knew as a result of the DNA test that he was not the father, and the only test that assertion in the petition could have referred to was the home test, since the court-ordered test was done after the petition was filed.
Having found that he did know at the time of the divorce that he was not the father, the court went on to distinguish Williams and to find it inapplicable because Mr. Lee knew when he undertook the obligation that he was not the father, he supported the child and exercised visitation with him. In Williams, the exact opposite of those facts existed.
The court also held that Mr. Lee had failed to prove a material change in circumstances that arose after the prior judgment that was sought to be modified. He knew the child was not his at the time, and that circumstance had not changed.
Bottom line is that Williams is an escape hatch for a dad who was led to believe that he fathered a child and only learned later that he did not. Williams, however, can not be used to relieve a support obligation in any case where the payor is related by blood to the child, or has adopted the child, or has otherwise voluntarily assumed the duty to support the child.
If you represent a father in an ID divorce, and he expresses any doubt as to whether a child is his, you should advise him of the ramifications of the Williams and Lee cases. If he wants to shrug it off and just “get it over with,” you should put your advice in writing and get him to sign off on a copy for your file.