Wednesday, January 27, 2016

ON VACATING AN ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF PATERNITY




Matter of Joshua AA. v Jessica BB. 2015 NY Slip Op 07718 Decided on October 22, 2015 Appellate Division, Third Department:

"In June 2013, two days after the birth of respondent's child, petitioner and respondent executed an acknowledgment of paternity naming petitioner as the child's father. In January 2014, both parties filed separate petitions requesting custody of the child. However, in March 2014, petitioner commenced the instant proceeding to vacate the acknowledgment of paternity. After the issue of equitable estoppel was raised in a hearing before a Support Magistrate, the matter was referred to Family Court (see Family Ct Act § 439 [b]). Without holding a hearing, Family Court sua sponte dismissed the petition on the basis that the pleadings alone demonstrated that petitioner was equitably estopped from denying paternity. Petitioner now appeals.

"Once 60 days have elapsed following the execution of an acknowledgment of paternity, the mother or acknowledged father may challenge that document in court only on the basis of fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact, with the burden of proof on the party challenging the voluntary acknowledgment" (Matter of Wimberly v Diabo, 42 A.D.3d 599, 599 [2007] [internal quotation marks omitted]; see Family Ct Act § 516-a [b] [iv]; Matter of Jeannette GG. v Lamont HH., 77 A.D.3d 1076, 1077 [2010]). To establish material mistake of fact, a party must demonstrate that such mistake "was truly material — i.e., substantial and fundamental to the nature of the [acknowledgment] — so as to entitle a party to void that document" (Matter of Wimberly v Diabo, 42 AD3d at 600). To establish fraud, a petitioner must show that he or she justifiably relied on the respondent's fraudulent statements or representations at the time the acknowledgment of paternity was signed (see Matter of Demetrius H. v Mikhaila C.M., 35 A.D.3d 1215, 1216 [2006]).

Here, in his petition to vacate the acknowledgment of paternity, petitioner alleged that his signature was procured either by material mistake of fact or fraud based upon respondent's history of infidelity. However, the petition also explained that petitioner put his name on the birth certificate of the child "despite all parties acknowledging that it was [another man's] child." Because petitioner's claim that he knew that he was not the father of the child negates a finding of fraud or material mistake of fact, as such findings are necessarily predicated on a lack of knowledge (see Matter of Felton R. v Gloria P., 63 A.D.3d 515, 515 [2009]), petitioner failed to plead sufficient facts constituting fraud or material mistake of fact (see Matter of Wimberly v Diabo, 42 AD3d at 601). Therefore, Family Court properly sua sponte dismissed petitioner's petition because, even "[a]ssuming the truth of the allegations in the petition, and according the petitioner the benefit of every favorable inference, the facts alleged do not fit into any of the grounds for vacatur of an acknowledgment of paternity" (Matter of Ronnyeh R. v Gwendolyn M., 99 A.D.3d 717, 717 [2012] [internal citation omitted]; see Matter of Panzer v Wood, 100 A.D.3d 1119, 1119-1120 [2012], lv dismissed 20 N.Y.3d 1001 [2013]; compare Matter of Siearra L. [Deborah L.], 130 A.D.3d 1184, 1186 [2015])."

NOTE: Even if a party meets his burden of establishing fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact, the Family Court is then required to conduct a hearing regarding the best interests of the child before ordering a GMT - a genetic marker test. See WESTCHESTER DSS v. ROBERT WR, 25 AD 3d 62 - NY: Appellate Div., 2nd Dept. 2005:

"The doctrine of equitable estoppel may be invoked to preclude a father, such as the respondent herein, from denying paternity to avoid support obligations where the invocation of the doctrine is in the best interests of the child (see Matter of Charles v Charles, 296 AD2d 547, 549 [2002]; Ocasio v Ocasio, 276 AD2d 680 [2000]; Brian B. v Dionne B., 267 AD2d 188 [1999]). Here, there was evidence before the Family Court that the child, nearly five years of age at the time of the subject challenge, recognized the respondent as her father and that the child enjoyed a relationship with him and members of his family."

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