Family Law Weekly Case Review

Case: J.M. v. M.A., et al.

Case Summary by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham McHale LLP

HELD: Indiana Supreme Court rules that, when a party seeks to set aside a paternity affidavit, genetic testing that excludes the party as the biological father is required, irrespective of other uncontroverted evidence that supports the man’s exclusion from paternity (e.g., a stipulation of mother and the man that they started dating after mother was pregnant and that man is not, in fact, the father of the child).

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY: Mother and “Father” began dating in 1998, at which time Mother was already four months pregnant with what both parties knew was another man’s child. When Mother gave birth, Father signed a paternity affidavit acknowledging himself to the “natural father” of the child. “Father” was not quite 18 years old at the time.

In 2009, upon the application of benefits for the child, the State intervened by filing a Title IV-D petition against “Father” to establish child support and health insurance coverage. “Father” was given notice, and a hearing was set. “Father” filed a pro se motion for continuance, reciting that he was working out-of-state and was trying to obtain legal counsel. “Father’s” continuance was denied, and in his absence, the trial court entered a default judgment adjudicating “Father” as the father of child, and ordering him to pay support of $47 per week.

“Father” obtained counsel, and filed a motion to set aside the default judgment of paternity and support. At the hearing of that motion, the evidence – including from Mother – was that “Father” was not the child’s biological father, and that Mother was puzzled as to why “Father” signed the paternity affidavit in the first place. The trial court denied “Father’s” motion to set aside, from which “Father” appealed.

The Court of Appeals agreed with “Father” that the trial court erred when it refused to set aside its default judgment against “Father.”  Ind. Code 31-14-7-3 permits a paternity affidavit to be rescinded only after a determination that: (1) “fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact” surrounded its execution; and (2) that genetic testing exclude the man as the child’s father. The Court of Appeals concluded that, under the totality of the circumstances, Father’s execution of the paternity affidavit constituted a material mistake of fact. And, importantly, the Court of Appeals determined it unnecessary to meet the technical statutory requirement of genetic testing excluding “Father” as the natural father of the child, in light of the stipulation of all parties concerned that such was the case. Thus, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court’s order finding paternity and ordering support was remanded with instructions to vacate its order.

The Indiana Supreme Court granted transfer. The Supreme Court also agreed it was appropriate to reverse the denial of the motion to set aside the trial court’s default judgment. However, the Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that the statutory genetic testing requirement could be side-stepped. Therefore, the Supreme Court remanded the issue to the trial court so that the request to rescind the paternity determination could be made in a manner that complies with Ind. Code 31-14-7-3.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: J.M. v. M.A., et al.

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