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New York Court Discusses Custody Battle Where Paternity in Debate


On a lovely day in August of 1991, a young mother married a man from Poughkeepsie, New York. At the time of her marriage the woman had a young son who was only a few months old. Shortly after their marriage in 1991, the mother had another son. This son was the biological child of the man from Poughkeepsie. He was born in June of 1994. Unfortunately, the marriage did not last. The couple divorced in April of 1996.

Although, they divorced, the couple continued to have a positive relationship as far as the boys were concerned. The older boy was led to believe that the father was his natural father. This belief has never altered. When the couple divorced, they agreed to continue the father and son relationship that they had maintained while living together for the first six years of the boy’s life. The divorce settlement treated both boys as if the father was the biological father of both of the boys. Therefore, the father agreed in the divorce settlement that he would pay child support for both of the boys, in the sum of $750.00 each per month. Under the custody agreement, neither parent was designated as the primary physical custodian of the children. The children spent an equal amount of time with both the mother and the father. The father never treated the older boy any differently than he did the younger boy who was his biological son.

In fact, the mother made a point of stating in the decree that if she were to die or become incapacitated prior to the older boy’s reaching the age of majority, that she wished him to be raised by the father, with the younger boy as his brother. She gave him this right with superiority to all others. The two parents stated that they recognized that by making this statement it could be absolutely binding, argue that it reflects the relationship that exists between the father and the child because the child regards the father as his father in fact. The father has always regarded the child as his son.

It is not argued that the father has treated the older boy as his son his entire life. In fact, the older boy has not been told that the father is not his biological father. The father is now seeking a petition from the court altering the custody arrangement. He seeks to have custody of both boys remain jointly between the parents, but suggests that he be named as the primary parent and that the boys’ night time residency be at his home. He further requests the court to limit the visits of the mother to times when her current boyfriend is not at the residence.

The father alleges that the mother’s boyfriend is aggressive and that the children have witnessed incidents of domestic violence in the home when he is present. The mother countered with the fact that the father is not the biological father of the older boy. Because of that fact, he cannot request a change of circumstances as it regards the older boy because he is not his biological father. She states that he therefore, lacks standing to bring a custody petition to the court.

The court disagreed. The court finds that it is in the child’s best interest to continue the lifelong father and son bond that has begun. The court finds that it would be detrimental to the welfare of both boys to suddenly change what they believe to be the truth of their relationship. The father argues this point under equitable estoppel. Ultimately, they state that the mother should be equitable estopped from stating that the father is a nonbiological parent without showing the court of an extraordinary circumstance that would make him unfit to continue as the parent of both children. Equitable estoppel has been defined as the “effect of voluntary conduct of a party whereby he is precluded from asserting rights against another who has justifiably relied upon such conduct and changed his position so that he will suffer injury if the former is allowed to repudiate the conduct.” (See Black’s Law Dictionary 538 (6th ed. 1990) While this doctrine has been applied for many years in cases of paternity to allow courts to treat a nonbiological parent as a parent it has also been used to protect the status of a parent child who operate in a parent and child relationship.

The court recognizes that the court must take into account what the best interests of the child must be. The court further recognizes that the best interests of the child should take precedence over the best interests of either adult. In this case, the fact that the child is unaware that his relation with his father is in any way different from his brother’s relation to his father, it should remain that way for the welfare of both children. “Once equitable estoppel is applied in a paternity case, the effect is to treat a nonbiological parent, in all respects, on an equal footing with the biological parent. Once on an equal footing with the biological parent, it allows the court to reach the best determination in a custody dispute between the parties as it relates to the child. Because of this, when a court has found equitable estoppel in a custody case, they are compelling a legal parental status upon a person who is or may not be a biological parent. This is only generally done when the person who applies to be equitably estopped has shown by their conduct as it relates to the child that the same standard should apply to them as regards the child even in paternity has never been an issue. Clearly, this should only be done in the best interests of the child in question.

In consideration of this particular case is the matter of the Third Judicial Department which has held against public policy to allow a parent to “stipulate away a child’s right to be reared by his or her biological parent and that any stipulation which may elevate a nonbiological parent to the status of parent in a custody case is against that public policy.”( Matter of Cindy P. v. Danny P., 206 A.D.2d 615, 614 N.Y.S.2d 479; Canabush v. Wancewicz, 193 A.D.2d 260, 603 N.Y.S.2d 230) The court maintains that a principle that is held in public policy may functionally destroy a child when that child had built a lifelong loving bond with a parent and a sibling.

The court rules that apply the doctrine of equitable estoppel in this case is necessary. Clearly, the older boy has been treated equally as the man’s son. The two boys view themselves as brothers. The mother has also expressed in the original divorce decree that this relationship is real and needs to be fostered. Basically, the older child has thought himself to be the natural child of the father his whole life. The court finds that to treat him differently now, would be the same as losing a parent and a brother to a catastrophic event. The court further notes that the father, in his petition, does not attempt to take the boys away from the mother. He only seeks to restrict the contact with the boyfriend, who is guilty of domestic violence against the mother.

In light of all of the information provided. The court rules that the mother is equitably estopped from “raising “the fathers status as a non-biological parent at any custody proceeding. The court recognizes that to uphold long standing principles as they regard the custody of children is to not consider any modern thought process or situations where a non-biological parent is considered the same as the biological parent would be regardless of whom the biological parent may be.

The father has further stated that extraordinary circumstances have changed the environment in which the children live to the point that the custody arrangement needs to be revisited by the court. The court admits that many of the same factual matters that created the necessity of the equitable estoppelment apply here. The issues of separating the older boy from the younger boy would cause severe trauma as well as sudden separation from the only father that he has ever known. The court is concerned with the element of domestic violence that has been introduced into the home.

The court cites the severity of the effects of domestic violence on the well-being of children. The court thereby views an allegation that domestic violence is prevalent now in the home of the mother, that it is certainly considered to be a changed environment. In fact, the court finds that it is sufficiently changed as to be considered extraordinary circumstance. Although proof of the extraordinary circumstances would not be required due to the equitable estoppel. It is however, necessary to preclude the mother from stating anything that would lead the court to view the father as less than a full biological father of both of the boys in question.

The court finds that there is enough proof of an extraordinary circumstance as proven by the addition of the boyfriend and domestic violence, to open up a new hearing into the custody arrangement. In this hearing, the father will be treated as a full biological father of both of the boys. The court has found that since this father has acted as a full father to both of these boys their entire lives, it would not be in the best interests of the boys to suddenly change that relationship based solely on a biological study. Especially in light of the fact that the biological father who is living in Alabama, has made no attempt to have any sort of relationship with the older boy at all.

The concerns of domestic violence in the home and the testimony of the father that state that since this reported abuse has begun, the children have suffered from behavioral changes that are consistent with children who are exposed to abuse in domestic violence situations, is enough to open this custody question up to trial.

This court rules that this matter will proceed to trial with both children considered equally.

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