Best Interests of Child Justified Denial of Petition to Vacate Acknowledgment of Paternity (Equitable Estoppel)
The Second Department determined Family Court properly denied the petition to vacate an acknowledgment of paternity. Petitioner demonstrated his signing of the acknowledgment was based upon a mistake of fact. Although petitioner was not the child’s biological father, the best interests of the child, with whom petitioner had lived from birth for six years, mandated denial of the petition. The court explained the relevant law:
A party seeking to challenge an acknowledgment of paternity more than 60 days after its execution must prove that it was signed by reason of fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact (see Family Ct Act § 516-a[b][ii]). If the petitioner meets this burden, the court is required to conduct a further inquiry to determine whether the petitioner should be estopped, in accordance with the child’s best interests, from challenging paternity … . * * *
The Family Court providently exercised its discretion in concluding that the petitioner should be equitably estopped from denying paternity. The purpose of equitable estoppel “is to prevent someone from enforcing rights that would work injustice on the person against whom enforcement is sought and who, while justifiably relying on the opposing party’s actions, has been misled into a detrimental change of position” … . Thus, “a man who has held himself out to be the father of a child, so that a parent-child relationship developed between the two, may be estopped from denying paternity” … . “The doctrine in this way protects the status interests of a child in an already recognized and operative parent-child relationship” … . The paramount concern in such cases “has been and continues to be the best interests of the child” … .
Here, the hearing evidence demonstrated that the petitioner lived with the child from the time of her birth in March 2005, until 2011. After the parties separated in 2011, the petitioner continued to visit with the child approximately one to two times per week. According to the petitioner, the child is free to visit with him whenever she wants. Although the child knows that the petitioner is not her biological father, she does not refer to or think of anyone else as her father. The child has a strong relationship with the petitioner and wants to spend more time with him and his son, whom she regards as her brother. Accordingly, the evidence established that, up to the time of the hearing, there had been a recognized and operative parent-child relationship between the petitioner and the child in existence all of the child’s life … . Matter of Luis Hugo O. v Paola O., 2015 NY Slip Op 05195, 2nd Dept 6-17-15