Dad wasn't dad after all, but still owes child support
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The idea behind the deadline is that any action taken in a marriage breakup should be completed while the child is as young as possible to avoid a major disruption during the most formative years.Skip to next paragraph
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"We don't want a system where a child is 10 years old and you have people who come in and undo what has been put in place many years before," says Susan Paikin of the Center for the Support of Families in Silver Spring, Md.
Ms. Paikin says that it is up to the adults in the relationship to thoroughly investigate any paternity issues at the time of the divorce.
But fathers' rights advocates say that few husbands are aware of a paternity deadline and its legal implications. And many have no idea that their wives have been unfaithful.
In generations past such infidelity might have gone undetected. But the advent of DNA testing is changing that. It is giving new momentum to a debate over how best to provide for broken families.
"There is no perfect answer," says Paikin. "There are a lot of people who will argue that it is always in the child's best interest to have a relationship with the biological parent and that should override everything else. There are others who believe just as fervently that being a parent has more to do with being caring and nurturing, and that is what makes you a father."
Part of the difficulty in paternity disestablishment cases is that once the financial contribution of the nonbiological father is terminated, the courts do not recognize a legal right to continued contact between the child and the man.
"It is the ultimate Catch-22 for my client," says Parker's lawyer, Scott Lazar of Miami. "On the one hand he has a relationship with this child and cares about this child and would probably be willing to provide money for this child, but he doesn't want to provide it to the mother to use as she wishes."
Family court judges aren't interested in fostering a continuing relationship between men and the children of their ex-wives, says Carnell Smith, who runs a DNA-testing company and is founder of Atlanta-based US Citizens Against Paternity Fraud. "The court is only concerned about financial payments."
Judges generally view the man in a divorce proceeding as nothing more than a "walking checkbook," he says.
Smith says that instead of targeting deceived ex-husbands, the legal system should investigate the conduct of the wife and hold the mother and biological father responsible for the child they produced.
"In no other area of the law do we punish the victim for the conduct of two other people," Smith says. "For me it is disingenuous for the Florida justices to turn around and say [to Parker] 'Well, it is your fault that you didn't find out sooner.' "
The Florida legislature tried to balance the law to avoid forcing children onto welfare rolls, says Tom Sasser, chairman of the family-law section of the Florida Bar. It rejected a proposal to allow ex-husbands to recover prior child-support payments. It also rejected a proposal to allow triple damages against deceptive mothers. Instead, the law allows ex-husbands to be released from future payments.
And that, advocates say, opens the door for some ex-husbands to attempt to build a trusting relationship with someone new and perhaps start a family without the burden of a court-imposed financial debt hanging over his new wife and children.