DISESTABLISHING PARENTAGE, STEP BY STEP

September 20, 2011 § 5 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.

Parental Rights of the Anonymous Sperm Donor

May 30, 2018 § 4 Comments

The law has always had to scurry along in the wake of technology, tidying up and redefining legal relationships affected by advances in science and medicine.

The latest instance arises out of the field of assisted reproductive technology, and addresses the issue of the parental rights of the anonymous sperm donor in the custody of a child born as a result of artificial insemination (AI).

Christina Strickland and Kimberly Day were married to each other in Massachusetts in 2009, and their marriage was later recognized in Mississippi, where they had taken up residence. In 2011, Kimberly was artificially inseminated and gave birth to a son, ZS. They separated in 2013, and were divorced in 2016, with custody of ZS being a contested issue. Following a hearing, the chancellor ruled that the child was born during the marriage, but that the parental rights of the natural father had not been terminated, thus precluding Christina’s claim to custody. Christina appealed.

In the case of Strickland v. Day, a case of first impression, a plurality of the MSSC held on April 5, 2018, that an anonymous sperm donor has no parental rights. Justice Ishee wrote for the plurality:

¶15. The chancery court’s decision, finding Christina not the legal parent of Z.S., turned largely on its determination that the sperm donor was the “natural father,” whose parental rights were subject to termination. On appeal, Christina argues that this finding is not supported by the evidence and is an erroneous conclusion of law. We agree.

¶16. At the outset, we are cognizant of the fact that we never before have determined what parental rights, if any, anonymous sperm donors possess in the children conceived through the use of their sperm. As such, this is an issue of first impression.

¶17. In searching our state’s existing law, the only law that even addresses AI is the disestablishment-of-paternity statute—Mississippi Code Section 93-9-10(2)(d) (Rev. 2013). And while Section 93-9-10(2)(d) does not address anonymous sperm donors’ parental rights directly, we find it useful as it illustrates the Legislature’s intent on such rights. Indeed, under Section 93-9-10(2)(d), a father cannot seek to disestablish paternity when the child was conceived by AI during the marriage to the child’s mother. Reading this provision, in light of the context before us, the logical conclusion—while not explicit—is that the Legislature never intended for an anonymous sperm donor to have parental rights in a child conceived
from his sperm—irrespective of the sex of the married couple that utilized his sperm to have that child.

¶18. How, on one hand, can the law contemplate that a donor is a legal parent who must have his rights terminated, while at the same time prohibiting the nonbiological father of a child conceived through AI from disestablishing paternity? These two policies cannot coexist. And for one to make such a logical leap effectively would say that the child has three legal parents: the mother who birthed the child, the natural father who donated his sperm, and the person who was married to the child’s mother (and is statutorily prohibited from disestablishing paternity). Three parents—that cannot be what the Legislature intended. Indeed, even the chancery court here said that cannot be possible.

¶19. In making its determination, the chancery court seemed to place great weight on the biological connection between the anonymous sperm donor and Z.S. Yet the Supreme Court of the United States has held that “[p]arental rights do not spring full-blown from the biological connection between the parent and child. They require relationships more enduring.” Lehr v. Robertson, 463 U.S. 248, 260, 103 S. Ct. 2985, 77 L. Ed. 2d 614 (1983) (quoting Cuban v. Mohammed, 441 U.S. 360, 397, 99 S. Ct. 1760, 60 L. Ed. 2d 297 (1979) (Stewart, J., dissenting)) (emphasis added). In a similar vein, we too have held that a biological connection alone is not enough to establish parentage. See Griffith v. Pell, 881 So. 2d 184, 186 (Miss. 2004) (finding that a biological father does not have any paternity rights where “he fails to establish that he has had a substantial relationship with the child”).

¶20. As a broader policy consideration, we find that requiring parents of a child conceived through the use of AI to terminate parental rights of the donor would not be in the best interest of the child—to say nothing of the expense and time it would require. When children are involved, we consistently have held that “the polestar consideration . . . is the best interest and welfare of the child.” Albright v. Albright, 437 So. 2d 1003, 1005 (Miss. 1983).

¶21. The consequences of assigning rights to donors, who do not engage in an act of procreation but provide biological material with no intention to act as a parent, would disrupt the familial relationships and expectations of Mississippians who have conceived children through the use of AI. For one, it would elevate the rights of a donor—who is a complete stranger to the child, and likely never will be identified—over the rights of a person who has known and cared for the child. Make no mistake—affirmance here arguably would impose parentage, and all its responsibilities, on anonymous sperm donors who contribute sperm to assist families in achieving pregnancy—perhaps creating a chilling effect on sperm donation. Furthermore, it effectively would leave many children conceived through this method with one legal parent. And in the tragic situation in which a mother dies during childbirth or before a proper termination proceeding—it would leave the child an orphan. Such a notion is untenable and certainly contrary to the public policy of this state.

¶22. On appeal, Kimberly’s position is that all of the nonbiological parents of children conceived through AI should be required to terminate the sperm donor’s parental rights and then establish parentage through the adoption process. We disagree. As a practical matter, the process of requiring one under these circumstances to adopt her own child (one which she intentionally agreed to bring into the family) would be intrusive, time-consuming, and expensive. In fact, it would require: parents who use AI with anonymous sperm donation to file a petition and wait thirty days to seek a hearing; a guardian ad litem to be appointed by the court at the parents’ expense; and a hearing to be held to determine whether an
unknowable sperm donor has abandoned the child. See Miss. Code Ann. § 93-15-107 (Rev. 2013).

¶23. One of the rationales behind termination statutes no doubt is to safeguard the rights of any potential parent-child relationship. Indeed, this Court has held that “[p]arents have a liberty interest, more precious than any property interest, in the care, custody, and management of their children and families.” G.Q.A. v. Harrison Cty. Dep’t Of Human Res., 771 So. 2d 331, 335 (Miss. 2000) (citing Santosky v. Kramer, 455 U.S. at 753–54, 758–59, 102 S. Ct. 1388, 71 L. Ed. 2d 599 (1982)). The seriousness of the action is reflected in the fact that termination of such rights requires clear and convincing evidence of the statutory grounds for termination. Chism v. Bright, 152 So. 3d 318, 322 (Miss. 2014) (citing Kramer, 455 U.S. at 754).

¶24. But with anonymous sperm donors there is no reason to protect the donor, as the donor has no intention or desire to act as a father. In reaching its conclusion in this case, the chancery court found that the donor was merely an “absent father,” but in reality, the donor is a nonexistent father. For the child could never find the donor, much less have a meaningful relationship with him. It is one thing for a child to cling to the hope of a possibility of discovering and eventually building a relationship with an absent father; it is quite another thing for a child to know that he has a natural father that he has no possibility of ever discovering, let alone having a relationship with. That is, short of perhaps a court order mandating the disclosure of the donor’s identity, it is arguably factually and legally impossible for the child ever to obtain the identity of the donor.

¶25. The impracticality and futility of applying the termination statute in this context is clear. Under Section 93-15-107, the natural father is a necessary party to such termination action, but here, or with any anonymous donor, whose identification cannot be known, compliance with the statute arguably is impossible. One cannot serve a party with no information to act upon and which likely never can be acquired.

¶26. To that end, Kimberly argues that Christina, and nonbiological parents alike, can effectuate this service though publication. To be sure, the text of the statute does allow for publication of service of a “necessary party whose address is unknown after diligent search[.]” Miss. Code Ann. § 93-15-107(1)(b) (Rev. 2013) (emphasis added.) Publication in this instance is for a party whose address is unknown, not a party whose identity is
unknown. (Emphasis added). What is more, how can it be evaluated whether there was a diligent search for the party, if the party is unknown? The chancery court itself conceded that it is unlikely that the donor ever could be hailed before the court. The chancery court also conceded that this donor’s identification likely would never be known. And with an absence of identification, publication practically cannot be effectuated in every case in which a couple utilizes AI to bring a child into the family. Indeed, publication under the statute presupposes that, while one may not know the exact location of the party, one at least knows, at a minimum, the identity of the party. This is not to say that, under these circumstances, service by publication could not be accomplished; it is, however, to say that, as a matter of public policy, we find it unwise to demand that it must be accomplished.

¶27. And so, we ask, would it not be futile for the chancery court to require parties to comply with a statute the chancery court itself admits cannot be satisfied due to reasons beyond the control of the parties? Though this exact question is not before us here, we find it demonstrative of the impracticability and futility of requiring compliance with Section 93-15-107(1)(b) in this context.

¶28. Aside from our determination that anonymous sperm donors, in general, do not possess parental rights in the children conceived through the use of their sperm, we also find that there is no other vehicle which allows us to conclude that the anonymous sperm donor here is Z.S.’s parent. The donor was not married to the mother at the time of Z.S.’s conception or birth, he has not executed a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity, and he has not been adjudicated to be the child’s “natural” father under state law. Miss. Code Ann. § 93-9-28 (Rev. 2013).

¶29. In sum, we find that the chancery court erred in finding that an anonymous sperm donor was Z.S.’s parent whose parental rights had to be terminated. Indeed, we find that there is no legal or policy basis to find that an anonymous sperm donor is a parent in this specific context.

Some thoughts:

  • This decision has limited precedential value since it is a plurality decision. But a majority broadly agree that the chancellor erred in ruling that the parental rights of the sperm donor had to be terminated as a prerequisite to a custody contest between the parties, so I would surmise that future litigation over the same issue will result in an outcome similar to this.
  • Justice Waller’s separate opinion points out that the legislature needs to address this issue. He’s right, since there is no statute directly on point.
  • I am uncomfortable with the language in the opinion that talks about the impracticality of requiring process on the sperm donor. Our court should not put a price, so to speak, on due process. Notice and an opportunity to defend are required in a wide range of cases — including those involving unknown fathers — without regard to the difficulty or impracticality of process. I agree that a sperm donor should not be required to be made a party to the litigation in AI cases; however, impracticality of process would not be a component of my rationale were I called upon to decide the case.
  • What cost the plurality a majority is the plurality’s treatment of equitable estoppel in the opinion beginning at ¶30. The dissenters take the position that since the equitable estoppel issue was never squarely presented to the chancellor, it is improper to take it up on appeal. On this I agree with Justice Coleman that it was unnecessary to address it. I would have ended the opinion at ¶29.
  • I found it interesting that the fact that this case arose out of a same-gender marriage was only mentioned in passing and played no part in the ultimate outcome. That is an indication that Obergefell has been absorbed into our law.

An Attempted Paternal Disappearance

January 9, 2017 § Leave a comment

Danny Hicks fathered a child by Jakeida Carter in January, 2007. In October of that year, Danny agreed to be listed as the father of the child, Janiyah, on her birth certificate. Around one year later, Danny entered into a stipulated agreement with DHS admitting paternity and agreeing to pay $202 a month in child support. The agreement was approved by court order. Things rocked gently on in domestic bliss thereafter. Janiyah called Danny “Daddy.” He was involved in Janiyah’s life, was active in her schooling, and, by all accounts was a good father. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, in 2015, a DNA test disclosed that Danny was not Janiyah’s biological father.

Danny filed a petition in chancery court to disestablish paternity and to terminate child support; he also wanted to be reimbursed $1,800 for the unhappy DNA results. Following a hearing, the chancellor responded no, no, and no, citing MCA 93-9-10(3)(c). Danny appealed.

The COA affirmed on December 6, 2016, in a four-page opinion by Judge Fair that was, in my opinion, lengthier than necessary. The words, “Affirmed per MCA 93-9-10(3)(c),” would have sufficed for me. You can read the COA’s opinion at this link.

As I pointed out in detail a previous post, in order to disestablish paternity since 2013, your client’s case must meet the criteria of the statute. In Danny’s case, he failed because, once a court approved a stipulation or acknowledgment of paternity, it was unassailable unless he had filed a petition to set it aside within the time specified in MCA 93-9-9. Danny waited ten years to petition, which is ‘way more than a tad too long.

Danny also argued that the chancellor committed reversible error by not seeing to it that Jakeida was sworn in before she testified. The COA pointed out that he waived that issue by not making a contemporaneous objection at trial.

Another, more substantial, point raised by Danny was that he should have been granted MRCP 60 relief because, he claimed, Jakeida committed fraud in claiming that he was the father. Other than his assertion, there was no evidence in the record of actual fraud. Moreover, the COA held, since he never filed a R60 motion with the trial court, he could not raise the issue for the first time on appeal.

Related note: In Finch v. Finch, 137 So.3d 227, 233 (Miss. 2014), the MSSC held that a chancellor may raise fraud on the court sua sponte in the course of a trial; however, there is no authority for the proposition that a chancellor is obligated to do so. It would have been improvident for the chancellor in this case to do so in the absence of clear and convincing evidence.

Before you go thundering off into court to vindicate a dad in a situation similar to Danny’s, be sure you familiarize yourself with MCA 93-9-10. You might save yourself and your client some grief … and money.

Non-DNA Parenthood

December 5, 2013 § 2 Comments

Disestablishing parentage has been a statutory procedure since 2011, when the legislature adopted MCA 93-9-10. I posted here an annotated version of the provision that set out my opinion of how to plead and prove it.

The MSSC at last was presented with an opportunity to address its application in the case of Jones v. Mallett, et al., handed down November 14, 2013.

Terence Jones was involved in a romantic relationship with Annette Mallett in 2000. Mallett gave birth to a child on August 22 of that year. Mallett says that she told Jones he was not the father when she learned of the pregnancy. Jones claims that he did not learn that he was not the father until after signing the paternity agreement and birth certificate application, or as much as four months later.

Jones was listed as the father on the birth certificate, and he signed it. In October, 2000, he and DHS entered into a “Stipulated Agreement of Support and Admission of Paternity,” which was approved by order of the chancery court.

In December, 2010, Jones had a DNA test performed, which excluded him as the father. He filed an action in chancery court to disestablish paternity, rather than a MRCP 60(b)(5) or (6) motion. The chancellor eventually dismissed Terence’s pleading, based on MCA 93-9-10. Terence appealed.

The supreme court brushed aside Terence’s argument that the agreement was the result of a “material mistake of fact” under MCA 93-9-10(3)(b), finding that “The facts as presented do not establish sufficient circumstances for the application of subsection (b).” [ ¶7 ]

Terence also argued that subsections (c) and (d) must be read together, mandating a finding that he meets the criteria for disestablishment, but the court rejected that position, pointing out that (c) relates to stipulations of paternity, and (d) relates to stipulations of support, which are two different things.

That last point is critical to the case because (c) says that the court may not set aside an agreement of paternity that has been approved by the court (as this one had been). Subsection (d), on the other hand allows disestablishment of parentage if he signed an agreement of support without knowledge that he is not the father of the child. That without knowledge language is significantly absent from (c). Since Terence had signed both, he had no wiggle room.

To me, the MSSC is sending the signal via this opinion that the statute will be strictly applied.

No doubt the considerable passage of time from the signing of the paternity agreement to DNA testing and the filing of suit and eventual court appearance figured into the unhappy result for Terence.

FATHER FOREVER

October 4, 2011 § 7 Comments

I posted here about the new statutory procedure to disestablish paternity.

One of the interesting aspects of the new code section is that it enumerates the reasons that would disqualify a father from attempting to prove he is not the father.

The flip side of the coin, then, is that these are the bases that conclusively establish paternity and preclude the mother or anyone else from denying his parentage. From the statute, the man is the father if he did any one 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) had 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.

I am not aware of any other place where these bases for paternity have before been listed in such a handy form.

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