The concept of illegitimate children has been a tricky issue for thousands of years. Kings and queens have inherited entire empires despite rumors of their illegitimacy. While there probably is not an empire at stake when most couples in the U.S. split up, inheritance remains a key issue. Many fathers may believe that they are biologically unrelated to their own alleged children. While this is obviously a distressing issue for many fathers to deal with, it goes far beyond bruised egos. Illegitimate children can have very real financial impacts for divorcing couples. 

Paternity is Established Automatically for Married Couples

In most marriages, fathers do not really have a say in their own legal paternity – at least not at first. If couples get married before a child is born, courts generally assume that the husband is the legitimate father of the child. No further action is required, as paternity is established on an automatic basis. Fathers can also establish their own paternity on a retroactive basis by getting married to a woman after a child is born. In some situations, husbands may be unaware of their legal obligations after getting married to a woman who already has a child. 

The Financial Impact of Paternity

Fathers have many financial obligations to their alleged children. For one thing, paternity indicates that a father is responsible for paying child support to the mother after the marriage ends, if a judge so orders it. The child may also become eligible to inherit the alleged father’s wealth. Finally, the child could also find themselves benefitting from the alleged father’s social security benefits, their veterans’ benefits, their employer’s healthcare insurance, and much more. 

What Happens if Paternity is Disestablished? 

Each state approaches the concepts of legitimacy and paternity in different ways. In some cases, it may be possible for a father to be “on the hook” for child support payments and other financial obligations despite the fact that they are biologically unrelated to the child. Generally speaking, this is based on certain time limits. For example, courts may determine that a father is legitimate if they spend a certain amount of time with the child, even if they are biologically unrelated. Many states also make it impossible to disestablish paternity after the child’s second birthday. 

If a father manages to disestablish paternity, they may be able to avoid many of the aforementioned legal obligations. For example, the child may no longer be eligible to inherit the father’s wealth or benefit from their various health insurance or social security programs. 

Perhaps most importantly, fathers can avoid paying child support to children if they can successfully disestablish paternity. In some states, these fathers can even be reimbursed for child support payments they have already made, although this is admittedly quite rare. 

Equitable Estoppel is a Sticking Point

Unfortunately for many alleged fathers, it can be very challenging to avoid financial obligations even after proving that they are biologically unrelated to the child with clear evidence, such as DNA test results. This is largely due to equitable estoppel. According to this legal doctrine, an individual’s prior conduct can limit their ability to assert certain contradictory legal claims. If they acted like a father and assumed the role of a father, the court may decide that they are the father. In this situation, child support payments could continue until a biologically unrelated child reaches the age of majority.