A new law seeks to expand the rights of men seeking to establish paternity in Michigan. The Revocation of Paternity Act, which took effect in June, 2012, allows any man who fathers a child with a woman who is married to someone other than the father to establish parental rights with respect to that child.
For over 20 years, Michigan courts have followed what is known as the Equitable Parent Doctrine. Atkinson v Atkinson, 160 Mich App 601 (1987). Under this doctrine, it is presumed that a husband is the natural father of any children born to his wife during their marriage, regardless of whether or not he is the actual biological father of the child. This doctrine is common in jurisdictions throughout the United States, and the underlying principles are intended to ensure harmonious relationships within the family unit. The Equitable Parent Doctrine helps preserve the marital relationship and also takes into account the love and support provided by a husband serving as an everyday father to a child, even if the child is not biologically his.
However, problems have arisen from the Equitable Parent Doctrine, particularly when a wife gives birth to a child that is not her husband’s biological child. Under this doctrine, a husband who divorces his wife could retain paternal rights in some cases, even if he was not the biological father. In situations such as these, the husband remains the “presumed father” while the biological or “alleged father” who wished to establish paternity of his child was left without any legal means of asserting his rights.
It was this apparent disparity between the rights of presumed fathers and those of alleged fathers that the Michigan Legislature sought to rectify in the Revocation of Paternity Act. The act now provides an alleged father with the ability to establish paternity in some circumstances, even if the mother is married to another man at the time the child is born.
While the act does broaden the rights of alleged fathers, it is not without substantial limitations, and preservation of the marital relationship remains paramount. In order for an alleged father to sustain an action to establish paternity, the act requires that (1) either the child be conceived at a time before the mother was married or (2) that the alleged father be unaware that the mother was married at the time the child was conceived. Also still present is the objective to protect existing relationships that are for the benefit of the child.
There are additional hurdles in cases where a child is conceived while the mother is married. In these cases, the alleged father must either establish that all of the parties have acknowledged a biological relationship between the biological father and the child or that the presumed (married) father has neglected his support obligations to the child for at least two years prior to the biological father’s commencement of the action. The act also requires that all actions be commenced within the first three years of a child’s life. However, the act contains a savings clause that allows actions to be brought anytime before June 12, 2013, regardless of a child’s age.
Although the Revocation of Paternity Act creates new opportunities for alleged fathers to attain paternity rights, there are still many situations where biological fathers will not be able to pursue an action. In cases where the biological father had knowledge that the mother was married to another man at the time the child was conceived, the biological father is still left with no recourse. Furthermore, the requirement in certain cases that all parties must at some time acknowledge a biological relationship between the alleged father and child may prove problematic in situations where paternity is disputed. Also, in cases where such acknowledgment is not needed, requiring proof that the presumed father has neglected his support obligations for at least two years can create issues when coupled with the requirement that the action be commenced within the first three years of the child’s life.
Simply put, the Revocation of Paternity Act hardly a cure-all for paternity disputes. While the act is an attempt to expand the rights of alleged fathers, problems remain in reaching the ever-delicate balance between the rights of alleged fathers and the preservation of existing marital/parental relationships.