In certain narrow circumstances, one may be required to pay child support as a “putative parent” based on the equitable doctrine of “parentage by estoppel.” This doctrine has typically been invoked to hold stepparents liable for child support even after the biological parent-stepparent marriage is dissolved.
A parentage by estoppel determination requires the court to find all of the following:
- The party to be estopped (alleged parent) knew he was not the child’s biological father;
- Notwithstanding his knowledge of nonparentage (above), the party represented to the child that he was the child’s true parent, intending the child to rely on that representation; and
- The child, ignorant of the true facts, relied upon that representation and treated the party as a natural parent, giving him the love and affection of a natural parent.
There are a line of family law cases in California finding that the conduct of a person with no biological ties to a child may nonetheless prevent that individual from avoiding parental responsibilities even after the person’s marriage to the child’s mother/father is dissolved.
The court in Clevenger v. Clevenger (1961) stated: “The relationship of father and child is too sacred to be thrown off like an old cloak, used and unwanted. We are dealing with the care and education of a child during his minority and with the obligation of the party who has assumed as a father to discharge it. The law is not so insensitive as to countenance the breach of an obligation in so vital and deep a relation, undertaken, partially fulfilled, and suddenly sundered.”
LONG-TERM PARENT-CHILD RELATIONSHIP REQUIRED
A long-term relationship is required for the court to find that a parent-child relationship exists. In the previously mentioned Clevenger case the parent-child relationship continued over a decade. In a more recent case, Marriage of Johnson, the court found that a 6 year relationship was sufficient.
APPLICATION OF PARENTAGE BY ESTOPPEL
In another case, Marriage of Pedregon, the Court of Appeal found that the trial court abused its discretion in not ordering stepparent Husband to pay child support for Wife’s 12–year-old son under the doctrine of parentage by estoppel where (i) Husband had started living with Wife when the child was 17 months old, married Wife five months later, and all along treated the child as his biological son, (ii) the child considered Husband to be his father, used Husband’s last name at Husband’s request, called Husband “daddy” and was unaware Husband was not his biological father, and (iii) Wife had not maintained contact with the biological father at Husband’s urging and did not believe she could locate him.
The facts of these cases while unfortunate are not entirely uncommon in California family law cases. It is important to speak with an attorney that can assist you if you are facing a similar situation.