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Dad wasn't dad after all, but still owes child support

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 9, 2007



FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA.

Sixteen months after his divorce, Richard Parker made a devastating discovery. A DNA test revealed that his 3-year-old son had been fathered by someone else.

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Mr. Parker immediately filed a lawsuit claiming fraud by his apparently unfaithful ex-wife. He took his case all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.

Last week, the Florida justices ruled 7-0 against him. They said that Parker must continue to pay $1,200 a month in child support because he had missed the one-year postdivorce deadline for filing his lawsuit. His court-ordered payments would total more than $200,000 over 15 years to support another man's child.

"We find that the balance of policy considerations favors protecting the best interests of the child over protecting the interests of one parent defrauded by the other parent in the midst of a divorce proceeding," writes Justice Kenneth Bell for the court.

"We recognize that the former husband in this case may feel victimized," he writes. He then quotes a scholar to explain the ruling: "While some individuals are innocent victims of deceptive partners, adults are aware of the high incidence of infidelity and only they, not the children, are able to act to ensure that the biological ties they may deem essential are present."

In effect, the high court is saying it's partly Parker's fault for trusting his wife.

The Parker case illustrates an increasingly contentious debate over the rights and responsibilities of divorced fathers who have been duped and don't challenge paternity at or near the time of divorce. But it also raises fundamental questions about the nature of fatherhood and the legal responsibilities that can attach to a father-child relationship – even when that relationship is the result of fraud and deception by a wife and mother.

Most states have laws that permit courts to order men who have been deceived to continue to make child- support payments even when they have no biological connection to the child. The idea is to minimize any disruption in the life of the child. In recent years, some states have begun passing laws that give deceived dads some ways to fight back.

There are no reliable estimates of how often "paternity fraud" takes place. Some findings suggest 4 to 10 percent of fathers, but no definitive study has been completed.

Unlike most duped ex-husbands in the US, Parker may still prevail in court. Last summer the Florida legislature passed a law that allows men to use newly discovered paternity evidence (like Parker's DNA test results) to overturn a court order to pay child support for someone else's child.

The June 2006 law is aimed at preventing the kind of outcome ordered by the Florida Supreme Court. The policy approach taken by the Florida Legislature stands in sharp contrast to the "policy considerations" cited by the state supreme court justices.

Supporters of the Florida law see it as a major step toward justice for deceived ex-husbands. Critics see it as a potential danger to the well-being of mothers and their vulnerable children.

In addition to Florida, Ohio, Georgia, Maryland, Alabama, Indiana, Virginia, Arizona, and Wyoming have laws allowing ex-husbands to overturn a child-support order when deception or fraud by an ex-wife is discovered, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. By contrast, most other states set a one- to four-year deadline for fathers to file lawsuits challenging paternity determinations.

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