How to Untangle a Tangled Web

May 2, 2019 by Robert Franklin, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

It’s another case in which the law makes something hard out of something easy (Indiana Lawyer, 4/30/19).

Jessica Boyd and Jason Baugh weren’t married and had an off-again/on-again relationship.  During that time, Boyd gave birth to two children, both of whom Baugh acknowledged by affidavit to be his.  That constituted proof of paternity under Indiana law, so, when the two adults split up in 2010, the court ordered joint custody for Boyd and Baugh.

For unknown reasons, in 2017, Boyd asked Michael Litton to take a paternity test regarding the younger child.  She and Litton had had an affair during one of her breaks from Baugh.  Sure enough, DNA testing revealed Litton to have fathered the younger of the two children.

So Boyd and Litton went to court to establish him as the child’s father and to establish his parental rights.  But the trial and appellate courts said ‘No.’  Why?  Because Boyd and Baugh had already established Baugh as both children’s father and the law wouldn’t allow Boyd to attack that finding.

Now, from what I can judge, that doesn’t leave Litton out in the cold.  His mistake was filing an action with Boyd.  As I read the opinion, Litton can seek parental rights on his own and, as the biological father, probably prevail.  What that does to Baugh and his parental rights to the younger child is anyone’s guess.

But what a tangled web this all is.  If Boyd had simply told Baugh the truth about the second child’s paternity, i.e. that the father could be him or Litton, all of the subsequent years of litigation and expense would have been saved.  More importantly, both children would have known from the beginning who their respective fathers are.  As things stand, the second child will be put through the turmoil of learning that Baugh, the man the child has always thought of as “Dad” is in fact not his/her father.  Plus the child will form a new relationship with Litton, whatever form that may take.

In short, the tangled web is an emotional and financial disaster for adults and children alike.

Why is there no legal requirement that a woman simply tell the truth about paternity?  If she knows for certain who the father is, she should be required to tell him.  If she’s not sure, she should have to inform each man who may be.  Genetic testing can then sort the matter out.  In every other area of law we require the person with knowledge of material information to disclose it to the other party to a transaction.  Why not here?

Alternatively, why don’t we just test the genetics of all children at birth?  We perform dozens of other tests on them, so why not one for paternity.  At a stroke we’d untangle the web that’s caught Boyd, Baugh, Litton and one child.  Plus, we’d take a great leap toward ensuring that children can form real, meaningful relationships with their fathers from their first days.

The weird web of laws and customs by which we pretend to establish paternity, but that all too often gets the matter wrong, could be reformed in the blink of an eye and children’s best interests and adults’ emotional well-being and bank accounts would be served if we did.

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