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Wrongly Accused: The Damaging Impact of False Paternity Claims on Men
The best interest of the child seeks to protect children, but it can sometimes lead to adverse results for men who are not biological fathers.
D'Angelo Smith was deep into his workday when a call from his wife pierced through the monotony. It wasn't often that Mrs. Smith peeked into her husband’s mail, but this particular envelope from the court proved too intriguing to resist. What it concealed was explosive enough to shatter any marriage. D’Angelo was now confronted with a paternity claim, insinuating a secret rendezvous with a stripper – a liaison he had no memory of.
The description matched him somewhat - it was the characterization of a generic black male. Yet, D'Angelo had no recollection of ever meeting this woman, let alone having had a one-night stand in a hotel room as she claimed. Without hesitation, he stepped into the courtroom, willingly taking a paternity test to exonerate himself.
However, the mother was noticeably absent from initial hearings, causing further delay. Even as they waited, a letter arrived at D'Angelo's workplace, indicating wage garnishments should the tests confirm his paternity. But the mother was not eager to submit the child for DNA testing.
Determined not to let his name be tainted, the Smiths contacted the media to bring awareness to this issue. The couple remained united against the allegations that could have destroyed their union.
Finally, after the story went viral, the woman had the DNA test performed on her daughter, and D’Angelo received a letter stating definitively that he was not the father. D’Angelo explained his initial thoughts after receiving the DNA test results in a Fox 2 Detroit interview.
"‘I would like to say relief, but kind of like confirmation. I already knew I had no ties or links to this child or this woman, and to have that letter come to my house, it was a little unnerving,’ DeAngelo said. ‘But not to the point of being caught up in something; it was unnerving that a letter like this could come to my house without any legitimacy.’"
As outrageous as this story seems, it happens to countless men nationwide. Further, if D’Angelo had not received the letter, or ignored it altogether, the case may have defaulted and child support could have commenced. This was the nightmare scenario that Gabriel Cornejo faced. We will get to his story later in this article.
The “Best Interest of the Child” Standard Is King in Family Law
What if I told you that a negative DNA test may not absolve a man from paying child support? Sounds crazy, I know! But yet, it’s the reality that many men face.
The concept of the "best interest of the child" is prevalent in family law. This principle emphasizes what is deemed best for the child's well-being, safety, and overall development, rather than the desires or rights of the parents. However, it can have a devastating effect on non-biological fathers.
If a man has acted as a father figure in a child's life, the court may decide it's in the child's best interest to maintain that relationship, regardless of biology. Uprooting the child may cause potential harm.
Once a man is legally recognized as a child's father, either by signing a birth certificate or by not contesting paternity within a set timeframe, financial obligations may attach. This can apply even if it's later discovered that he isn't the biological father.
Ensuring that a child has financial support is a primary concern for courts. If a man has been financially responsible for a child, courts may not remove that duty, especially if no other person can take on the responsibility.
If a child believes someone is their father and has built a bond with that person, the court may determine that it's in the child's emotional best interest to maintain that relationship, regardless of biology.
The best interest of the child seeks to protect children, but it can sometimes lead to adverse results for men who are not biological fathers. It is important to note that each state has its own laws and regulations that govern child support.
Beyond Biology: The Clash Between DNA Evidence and Court Orders
In 2017, Texas resident Gabriel Cornejo was served with court documents demanding that he settle unpaid child support for a child he wasn’t even sure was his. Cornejo took a DNA test, which confirmed he was not the biological father.
Previously, a court had ruled in the absence of Cornejo (an “in default” judgment) that he was the father because he hadn’t contested it at the time. This judgment mandated that Cornejo owed a substantial amount in back child support. Cornejo claimed that he was never notified of the paternity issue.
Despite the DNA evidence indicating that he wasn’t the biological father, the previous court ruling held him accountable for the payments. He is on the hook for $65,000 for a child proven not to be his. The Texas Family Law allows a negative paternity test to end future child support obligations, but it doesn't absolve payments accrued before the test.
D’Angelo Smith and Gabriel Cornejo are prime examples of the need to reform our child support system. Proponents of legal reform claim that the child support system needs a uniform overhaul to safeguard against unjust financial burdens and emotional distress for individuals falsely identified as fathers. There must be a balance that promotes fairness for fathers while maintaining safeguards for children.