When Dad Learns He is not the Biological Father

August 9, 2020

by Sean Kullman

With 40% of births in the United States occurring out of marriage as of 2018, paternal discrepancy and paternal fraud create physical, emotional, and financial challenges for children, fathers, courts, and parents in custodial disputes. (This does not mean people in marriages do not experience paternal discrepancy and fraud with its own sets of challenges.) The injured parties in these instances are often children, men, and other females since a mother's sexual history and knowledge of pregnancy remains solely with the mother unless paternity is established.

The rights of fathers have long been subject to court rulings more interested in financial responsibility. Ensuring children have emotional relationships with biological fathers and securing legal protections for fathers who knowingly take on the responsibility of fathering seems tertiary to the judicial system. Family courts ideologically think along financial interests and not necessarily emotional ones. It is one of the reason fathers only make up 20% of custodial parents in separation and divorce according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The Census data does not account for the millions of children who do not know their biological fathers because of paternal fraud and the millions of fathers denied custodial rights in absentia.

Evidence safely suggests paternal discrepancy happens in 4% of all births if not more although more research is needed in this area. With 82.6 million children under the age of 21 currently living in families,

  • 3.3 million children or more do not know their biological fathers

  • Millions of adults likely do not know their biological fathers

  • Millions of men do not know they have children

  • Millions of men may be unknowingly, financially responsible for nonbiological children

Diagnosis of birth defects may reveal a partial understanding of Parental Fraud and parentage. The advances in DNA testing plays a significant role in diagnosing children with birth defects and diseases. Some men learn about infidelity when a child is diagnosed with a birth defect and a doctor requires DNA testing. In this instance, the DNA of the biological father becomes more pressing. Some data suggests that paternal fraud happens in 10% of these cases although a definitive number is unclear, as geneticists avoid comprehensive reporting of such data. This data should be acknowledged and reported because the data collection can be anonymous, compiled yearly and for decades, and provide a clearer picture of paternal fraud and its impact on the health of children.

Married couples and unmarried couples face different challenges as more instances of paternal fraud happen with unmarried couples than married couples. A marriage where an infidelity occurs creates a different challenge, particularly if the couple already has children and the marriage is intact. But the questions linger, does the biological father have the right to know? Should the nonbiological father take on financial responsibility or have the right to legally adopt the child with the consent of the biological father? Can the biological father and the potential custodial father have an active part in a child’s life?

These lingering questions exist because court systems do not recognize fraud more assertively in family court, and family courts seem to ignore fraud protections for men. Fraud is associated with terms such as concealment, deceit, and false and misleading information. Knowingly concealing, deceiving, and misleading a man regarding his biological relationship to a child fits rightly under the auspice of fraud.

For the most part, courts do not distinguish between biological and legal fatherhood, instead referring to the signer of the birth-certificate as the legal guardian of the child even when a man is misled when signing the certificate and another man is barred of his rights to fatherhood. A biological father can sue for custodial rights and may come out of court with no relationship with the child and a child support order.

Some nonbiological fathers have taken on the financial responsibility of a child even when they are not the biological father: Something that happened to Tanner Pruitt who chose to keep paying child support rather than risk hurting the girl he rocked to sleep as a baby and raised into a young woman. He and she clearly see him as the father because of the emotional depth of their relationship often ignored in the courts. His daughter was 12 when he learned of the paternal fraud. Pruitt would eventually sue and win partial custody, but this is not the case for the majority of fathers of paternal fraud who may never learn about their children and the millions of men forced to pay child support for another man’s child even when parentage has been established. This happened to Mike L from Pennsylvania who tried to have his custodial rights removed for fear he would not be able to see his daughter and would be responsible for her financially without rights to an emotional relationship. He was able to establish a relationship with his child that resulted in a weak custody order that allows him to see his daughter every-other-weekend. Since Mike is considered the legal father, does he deserve as close to 50/50 shared parenting rights more fitting his love for his daughter, recognition by the courts as the legal father, and his financial responsibility to pay child support?

Unmarried couples present a more troubling challenge since 40% of all births are from non-married couples. Minority men remain most at risk for paternal fraud as minority women account for the majority of unmarried births. Although we see more interracial relationships, couples still tend to date and marry within their own race. (All men of all races are impacted by paternal fraud, and it's the reason men of all races need to collectively work together to ensure parental rights include men. Topics around race often overlook gender-demographic data and instead conflate women's and men's issues when gender is the underlying factor).

For men who question their biological paternity, they are correct 30% of the time. In these cases, men have a hunch they may not be the biological father. Even when men learn they are not the biological father, courts require them to take on financial responsibility. Some family rights groups argue paternity testing for all unmarried couples should be a legal requirement before signing any legal documents regarding parentage for a number of reasons.

  • Once a father signs a birth certificate, he becomes legally responsible for the child even when DNA testing reveals he is not the father and courts make him legally responsible

  • Biological fathers may never learn they have a child or prefer that another man assumes financial responsibility

  • A woman with multiple partners may receive financial support from a man who is unrelated to the child and from a man who has a relationship with her and the child

  • Family health history is important

  • DNA testing may become necessary in some instances

  • Grandparents are denied and active role in the life of a grandchild.

The reasons above represent fallouts and consequences of the legal process, but the ethics of the legal system should lie in confirmed knowledge and truth. The laws regarding Paternal Fraud and the custodial rights of legal guardians must move from a financial one to an ethical one with legal protections for men, women, and children. The court system has a long history of legal actions that ignore fraud and parental rights.

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