Most couples understand and accept that when they have a child together, they are obligated to pay for their child’s needs until the child is an adult. They also understand, even if they do not always accept, that this obligation continues even if their relationship ends.
If she is born in wedlock, the child is automatically presumed to be of the husband. If the child is born out of wedlock — something even the glacially slow Louisiana legal system has finally gotten around to realizing is more often the case — a man can sign a document called an “authentic act” acknowledging paternity of the child. Once this is signed, the child is for all intents and purposes the man’s legal child in every respect. This is true even if the man is not biologically related to the child. If he has reason to suspect this, he only has a very limited time to challenge his acknowledgment that the child is his. If he fails to do so, that child is his responsibility forever.
How long do you have to claim otherwise? It depends on whether or not you are married when the child is born. But in either case, the answer is: not long at all.
Say you are a young man, and a young lady with whom you have been intimate gives you the news that she is pregnant. You always planned to settle down and raise a family with the right woman, but being a young fellow with his whole life ahead of him, you figured that would be some time well down the road. But, you were raised to always take responsibility for your actions, so you do the right thing and offer to get married. She gleefully accepts.
After Junior is born you get married, and you dutifully sign off acknowledging that Junior is in fact your kid. But then, after a while, you start thinking all was not what it seemed. She is out an awful lot, going who knows where with who knows who, leaving you and Junior home all alone. It’s a small Louisiana town. Everyone knows everyone, and you can’t avoid the rumors for long. You start getting suspicious, but you may not realize your time to act on those suspicions is incredibly short: six months! What’s more: to get out of it, if it is longer than sixty days, you can’t just sign a paper like you did to become a dad. You have to file suit! After that six months, if you haven’t acted to protect yourself, you are Dad now and forever, no matter what truth reveals itself in the meantime.
For a man who is already married, the news is a little better. In 2016, Louisiana family law experts met to discuss ways to fix what was becoming an evident imbalance in the rights of putative fathers. Specifically, Louisiana has the shortest “disavowal period” in the country. Complaints were mounting from judges, lawyers and others in the field that some unscrupulous women had learned of the brief time limit, and knew to keep the existence of an affair under wraps until the coast was clear. This led to what some experts called an “epidemic of men being forced to pay child support for children that are not biologically theirs.” The result was the family law committee recommending, and the House adopting, a change to the Code. For a child born into wedlock, a man has one year from the date the child is born, or that he knew or should have known the truth about paternity; whichever is later. But this change applies only for a man already married when the child is born.
This may seem unfair, especially if you are the unwitting guy duped into “doing the right thing” by marrying the mother and accepting paternity of a child you didn’t know was not yours. It is even possible for the woman to wait the requisite time to reveal the truth of her child’s paternity, and then potentially have both you and the biological father on the hook to support the child!
Unfortunately for our well-intentioned suitor, the 2016 amendment actually narrowed his ability to challenge paternity. Before the amendment, he could presumably revoke his acknowledgement of paternity the same way he made it; signing off in the presence of a notary and two witnesses. Now that is not sufficient: he must actually file suit to disavow paternity. The time period for him to do so remains only six months, and his burden of proof remains the same.
In other words, the legislature actually chose to make it harder for the guy trying to do the right thing by acknowledging a child he wrongly believed was his. I am not entirely sure how this resulted from a bill introduced to curb a purported “epidemic” of men indentured into supporting children they did not father, but that is what happened. So the moral and policy lesson our legislature chose to convey is this: if you are going to have a kid with a woman of questionable morality and sexual promiscuity, make sure you are married to her before you do.
Your guess is as good as mine as to why this is sensible policy. Possibly, it is a backdoor way for the legislature to promote couples having children in wedlock by punishing out of wedlock births, but frankly I doubt they are capable of that level of passive-aggressive subtlety. I think the reason is much drier: since guys who are already married are automatically presumed to be the father of a child born to their wife, they are given more time to address suspicions they may harbor about paternity than are men who are not burdened by that presumption because they are not married to the mother.
But from where I sit, one can argue that the legislature is punishing the guy who is trying to do the right thing and be a father to a child he has been tricked into thinking is his. This is all about arbitrary policy judgments, and there is no right or wrong answer. Why not give every man the same, reasonable amount of time to learn the truth about paternity and do something about it? In fact, why have a time limit at all? Reasonable minds can differ, and policy decisions are never black and white. Some states actually do not have a limit on the time a man can challenge paternity.
But I think the problem with that is obvious: the child, who has no say in any of this, needs a dad (or more accurately two parents, I don’t mean to leave out our same-sex friends, but in this context we are obviously talking just about paternity issues). All too often, people with a voice — not to mention lobbyists, experts, money and power — are the only ones who get listened to. Children effectively have no voice. As I mentioned, more and more children are born out of wedlock. According to the CDC, Louisiana has one of the highest rates of out-of-wedlock births at 48%; behind only Mississippi and New Mexico. Allowing putative dads a potential “out” of responsibility through challenging paternity whenever the relationship ends would mean a lot more Louisiana children growing up without a father. Clearly, our legislature has a problem with that.
So, Louisiana has decided that fatherless children are a greater societal problem than men forced to support kids who are not biologically theirs. As a result, Louisiana has chosen to give men a very narrow window of opportunity to make that challenge, after which, for the kid’s sake, the window closes permanently.
I had originally settled on this topic for this week (or actually for last week, but I was exiled at the time by Hurricane Ida) because of an interesting paternity case which just came out of the Third Circuit: Wetta v. Wetta. Wetta interests me because it involves a man who married the mother and acknowledged paternity of a child he knew was not his at the time, then tried to disavow the child when the marriage fizzled. However, I needed to set up a basis for understanding why that case is so darned interesting, which became this entire post, which obviously ran long. So next week (barring more catastrophic death storms) will be back to the normal bi-weekly schedule, and an in-depth look at the question of whether Louisiana’s strict paternity policy extends to men who knew all along the child is not theirs, and never was!