In 2013, the Supreme Court of Connecticut considered the question of whether a putative father, who was deceived by the child’s mother and biological father as to the child’s paternity, may recover from the biological father money spent raising the child under the mistaken belief that he was the father.
In this case, the plaintiff and his wife were married in 1986 and had a daughter together that year. However, the wife engaged in an extramarital affair with the defendant and they had a daughter together in 1992. The plaintiff did not know about this affair, and neither the wife nor the defendant told him the truth. Based on the defendant’s increased involvement with only the younger child, the plaintiff developed suspicions regarding her paternity. In early 2006, he secured a hair sample of the child and submitted it for DNA testing. A report he received that October excluded the possibility that he was the father.
Within months the plaintiff moved out of the house and filed for divorce. The marriage was dissolved in November 2007, and the incorporated separation agreement only listed the older daughter as issue of the marriage. During the proceedings, the mother testified that she believed the defendant was the biological father of the younger daughter, and that he already provided financially for the child and would continue to do so. The defendant testified that he suspected he was the child’s father.
Estoppel from Denying Paternity
In June 2008, the plaintiff filed an action against the defendant seeking reimbursement for costs spent in raising the younger daughter over the course of nearly fifteen years. However, the trial court concluded that the plaintiff was equitably estopped from denying his paternity and financial responsibility for the child. It held the public policy position that “the best interests of the child trump the financial interests of a former putative father.” The plaintiff appealed this decision.
Estoppel involves “misleading conduct of one party to the prejudice of the other.” In this case, the Supreme Court of Connecticut reviewed how other jurisdictions apply this theory: some focus on whether the detrimental reliance was either financial or emotional, but the majority hold the position that emotional harm, on its own, is not enough. In Connecticut, a showing of financial detriment is required to impose estoppel, though emotional harm may be considered.
The Court’s Decision
The Court agreed with the plaintiff that equitable estoppel did not bar his claim. It noted that the plaintiff did nothing to keep the wife from either establishing the younger child’s true paternity or seeking child support payments from the defendant.
In addition, the wife testified during the dissolution proceedings that the defendant, whom she believed to be the biological father, provided financial support to the child and would continue to do so. Reimbursing the plaintiff would not hamper the defendant’s ability to continue such support. Finally, the Court disagreed with the trial court that emotional harm to the child was likely, since the child’s paternity was publicly disclosed during the divorce proceedings. Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case.
Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.
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