DISESTABLISHING PARENTAGE, STEP BY STEP

September 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

As I posted here before, the legislature has adopted a procedure to disestablish parentage (paternity) in light of Williams v. Williams, 843 So.2d 720 (Miss. 2003), and its progeny, which hold that a man who is determined by DNA testing not to be the father of a child should not continue to be responsible for the support of that child.

The new code section, MCA § 93-9-10, went into effect July 1, 2011.  The very first sentence of the statute states that “This section establishes the circumstances under which a legal father may disestablish paternity and terminate child support when the father is not the biological father of the child.” In my opinion, this code section is now the exclusive remedy for a father in these circumstances. Any proceeding such as a petition to remove the father from the birth certificate, or a joint petition to disestablish paternity, or a modification pleading that does not meet the requirements of the statute will be ineffective.

You may well ask, “But if the father and mother agree, what is the harm? Why not simply approve their agreement?” First of all, there are the welfare and rights of the child to consider. See, Kelly v. Day, 965 So.2d 749 (Miss. App. 2007).  And secondly, if the procedure is ineffective, the child will have a later cause of action for support, making the whole earlier procedure a waste of time.

Before I step through the statute with you, please let me urge you to read the statute. I swear, it won’t take more than five minutes. If you’re going to advise clients about this, you need to be familiar with what it says.

So here is the procedure, step by step (statutory requirements in bold, my comments in regular font):

  1. The father must file a petition in the court having jurisdiction over the child support obligation. This means that if the county court, or chancery court in another county, has entered a child support order, the petition must be filed in that court.
  2. Process and a copy of the petition must be served on the other parent or guardian; if DHS is or has been a party to the paternity action or collection of child support, the Attorney General of the State of Mississippi must be served with process. In my opinion, since this action is under the chapter dealing with parentage (bastardy), 30-day process would be required pursuant to MRCP 81 (d)(1).
  3. The petition must include: (a) an affidavit executed by the petitioner that he or she (there is nothing in the statute that says that the mother is precluded from filing a petition) has newly-discovered evidence since the paternity determination relating to parentage of the child, and (b) the results of a genetic or other scientific parentage test administered within one year of the filing of the petition excluding the legal father as biological father of the child or an affidavit executed by the petitioner that he did not have access to the child for testing before the filing of the petition; in the latter case, the petitioner may request that the mother (if available), child and father submit to such testing.
  4. The court shall grant the relief on a properly filed petition if the court finds all of the following: (a) There is newly-discovered evidence as averred; (b) the scientific testing was properly conducted; (c) the legal father has not adopted the child; (d) the child was not conceived by artificial insemination while the legal father and mother were married; (e) the legal father did not prevent the biological father from asserting his parental rights with respect to the child. I recommend that your petition include allegations (a) through (e). Your client is swearing that all of these statements are true, and you are vouching under MRCP 11 (a) that the pleading has “good ground to support it.” And make sure your client reads it before signing. He is swearing all of this is true, andd if he balks or hems and haws, you might want to think about going back to the drawing board.
  5. The court shall not set aside the paternity determination or child support order if the court finds that the legal father did any of the following: (a) Married or cohabited with the mother and assumed parental obligation and support of the child after having knowledge that he was not the biological father; (b) consented to be named as father on the birth certificate or signed an acknowledgment of paternity and failed to withdraw within the time periods mandated by MCA §§ 93-9-9 and 93-9-28, unless he can prove fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact; (c) signed a stipulated agreement of paternity that has been approved by order of the court; (d) signed a stipulated agreement of support that has been approved by order of the court after having knowledge that he is not the biological father; (e) been named as legal father or ordered to pay support after he declined to undergo genetic testing; or (f) failed to appear for a genetic testing draw pursuant to a valid court order. Same advice here about incorporating these as allegations in your petition. Make your client swear that he has not done any of the foregoing. The rationale above applies here.
  6. If the petitioner does not make the required showing, the court shall deny the petition.
  7. Relief is limited to prospective (future) child support, past-due child support payments, termination of parental rights, custody and visitation. The statute does not create a cause of action to recover child support paid before filing of the petition. The statutory procedure can not be used to litigate previously-paid child support. It can be used to address past-due child support, parental rights, custody and visitation.
  8. The court may not suspend the child support obligation while the petition is pending, although the court may order that such payments may be held by the court or DHS pending a final determination. My suggestion is to plead for the court or DHS to hold the child support funds pending litigation, if that is what your client wants. If you don’t specifically ask in your petition for that relief, you likely will not get it.
  9. The party requesting genetic testing shall pay its fees. There is no provision in the statute for the court to tax the fees other than to the party who requests it.
  10. The usual authority of the court on motion or its own motion to order the parties to submit to genetic testing applies.
  11. The unsuccessful petitioner shall be assessed with court costs, genetic testing fees and reasonable attorney’s fees. Here’s the reason why I suggested above that you specifically plead all of those qualifying and possibly disqualifying facts and make your client read carefully before signing. Clients sometimes will lead you to believe that they have a case, and will omit some important detail, like the execution of that acknowledgment of paternity. They think they can pull a fast one on the court, or that it somehow will slip by unnoticed. The result of failure for the petitioner is being assessed with some significant expenses. The result for you is egg on your face and slipping a notch in the court’s regard of your own credibility.

This statute should go a long way toward eliminating the welter of approaches that lawyers have taken to address the disestablishment of paternity. Now there is a single statutory provision. Read the statute, follow it, and you might accomplish something for your client.

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