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S.M.C. v. C.A.W.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

October 22, 2019

S.M.C. Appellee
C.A.W. Appellant

          Appeal from the Order Entered October 12, 2018 In the Court of Common Pleas of Huntingdon County Domestic Relations at Nos: 4115-2016



          STABILE, J.

         Appellant, C.A.W., an adult male, lived together with Appellee, S.M.C., an adult female, and Appellee's daughter ("Child") for almost twelve years. Appellant held himself out as Child's father, supported Child financially and claimed Child as a dependent on many of his tax returns. After Appellant and Appellee ended their relationship, Appellant refused to continue providing Child with financial support and cut off virtually all contact with Child. Appellee filed an action for child support, and the trial court ordered Appellant to pay support under the doctrine of paternity by estoppel. Based on the test for paternity by estoppel articulated in K.E.M. v. P.C.S., 38 A.3d 798 (Pa. 2012), we conclude that the trial court acted within its discretion by requiring Appellant to pay support. Accordingly, we affirm.

         Following evidentiary hearings that included testimony from, Appellant, and a child psychologist, Mark Peters, the court found the following facts. In 2002, Child was born to Appellee and H.N., the natural mother and father, respectively. Appellee and H.N. never married, H.N. had virtually no contact with Child, and H.N. never provided financial support or performed parental duties for Child. Appellee filed a child support action against H.N., but it was dismissed because he could not be located.

         In January 2003, Appellee began an intimate relationship with Appellant. From April 2003 through January 2015, Appellee and Child lived together with Appellant in Appellant's home. Appellant held himself out to be Child's father and performed parental duties on Child's behalf, treating Child the same as his own biological daughters. Appellant referred to Child as his daughter when introducing her to third parties, and Child referred to Appellant as her father and/or her daddy. Appellant claimed the child dependency tax exemption on his federal income tax returns for Child in tax years 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2011 and 2012. Appellee was employed outside the home from 2007 through 2010, but her income was insufficient to support Child.

         In January 2015, the relationship between Appellee and Appellant ended. Appellee and Child left Appellant's house, and Appellant stopped all financial support to Child and all contact with Child, except for a few visits. Appellant also began a new relationship with another woman. Appellee obtained public assistance but has been unable to do anything financially for Child, such as celebrate Christmas.

         After meeting with Child four times, child psychologist Peters opined that Child viewed Appellant as her de facto emotional parent and had a positive and stable relationship with him while they resided together. Child reported that their relationship changed after she left Appellant's house. During the first hearing in this case, Appellant walked by Child without acknowledging her, leaving Child hurt and confused. Peters diagnosed Child as experiencing an adjustment disorder with mixed anxiety and depression.

         Based on Peters' testimony, the court determined that Child suffered a serious adverse emotional impact. The court also concluded it was in Child's best interests to apply the paternity by estoppel doctrine against Appellant and require Appellant to pay support. The Huntingdon County Domestic Relations Section calculated Appellant's support obligation, and an interim support order was entered. Appellant filed a timely de novo objection to the interim order, which the trial court dismissed. This timely appeal followed. The sole question in this appeal is whether the trial court abused its discretion in concluding that Appellant owed a duty of support under the paternity by estoppel doctrine.

         We review support orders for abuse of discretion. V.E. v. W.M., 54 A.3d 368, 369 (Pa. Super. 2012). We cannot reverse the trial court's support determination unless it is unsustainable on any valid ground. Kimock v. Jones, 47 A.3d 850, 853-54 (Pa. Super. 2012). "An abuse of discretion is not merely an error of judgment, but if in reaching a conclusion the law is overridden or misapplied, or the judgment exercised is manifestly unreasonable, or the result of partiality, prejudice, bias or ill-will, as shown by the evidence of record." V.E., 54 A.3d at 369 (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). "The principal goal in child support matters is to serve the best interests of the children through the provision of reasonable expenses." Mencer v. Ruch, 928 A.2d 294, 297 (Pa. Super. 2007).

         As our Supreme Court has explained, the paternity by estoppel doctrine permits a trial court to determine a child's parentage for support purposes based on the actions of the child's mother and/or putative father.

Estoppel in paternity actions is merely the legal determination that because of a person's conduct (e.g., holding out the child as his own, or supporting the child) that person, regardless of his true biological status, will not be permitted to deny parentage, nor will the child's mother who has participated in this conduct be permitted to sue a third party for support, claiming that the third party is the true father. . . . [T]he doctrine of estoppel in paternity actions is aimed at achieving fairness as between the parents by holding them, both mother and father, to their prior conduct regarding the paternity of the child.

Fish v. Behers, 741 A.2d 721, 723 (Pa. 1999) (quoting Freedman v. McCandless, 654 A.2d 529, 532-33 (Pa. 1995)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Estoppel rests on the public policy that "children should be secure in knowing who their parents are. If a certain person has acted as the parent and bonded with the child, the child should not be required to suffer the potentially damaging trauma that may come from being told that the father he had known all his life is not in fact his father." T.E.B. v. C.A.B., 74 A.3d 170, 173 (Pa. Super. 2013).

         The paternity by estoppel doctrine may apply in circumstances where the child's mother was never married to the putative father. See R.K.J. v. S.P.K., 77 A.3d 33 (Pa. Super. 2013), appeal denied, 84 A.3d 1064 (Pa. 2014) (affirming the finding of paternity by estoppel where the mother was married to another man at the time of the child's birth, and where the mother and the putative father resided together for six years but never married). Moreover, the paternity by estoppel doctrine may apply even where the putative father's relationship with the mother began years after the child's birth and where it was undisputed that the putative father was not the biological father. SeeHamilton v. Hamilton, 795 A.2d 403 (Pa. Super. 2002) (affirming the finding of paternity by estoppel where the putative father did not begin a relationship with the child's mother until approximately three years after the child's birth and where it ...

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