Evolving Issues in Family Law

Below are summaries of some of the most recent decisions on various family law topics.

Paternity by Estoppel – K.E.M. v. P.C.S.

In this case, Appellant, mother of G.L.M., brought an action for support against Appelle, the alleged father of G.L.M. Appellant was married to H.M.M. at the time G.L.M. was born. Further, H.M.M. had supported the child and acted as a father figure to G.L.M. for most of the child’s life. Appellee filed a motion to dismiss the support action on the basis of a presumption of paternity and paternity by estoppel.

A presumption of paternity arises where a child is born into an intact marriage. In that circumstance, absent clear and convincing evidence to the contrary, the husband will be deemed to be the father. In this case, H.M.M. submitted to a paternity test which ruled him out as the father. Accordingly, the presumption of paternity was defeated.

Paternity by estoppel acts to impose an obligation on the party who holds themselves out as a father to the child and supports the child to continue to support the child. Appellee’s argument that H.M.M. had acted as G.L.M.’s father prompted the lower court and Superior Court to grant his motion to dismiss the support action against him and continue to hold H.M.M. responsible for G.L.M.’s support.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ultimately reversed the decision and remanded back to the lower court for further proceedings. Specifically, the Supreme Court held that the purpose of paternity by estoppel is to keep families intact and protect the best interest of the child by shielding them from claims of illegitimacy and, potentially, a broken family. Accordingly, the court would need to be convinced that it was in the best interests of G.L.M. to continue to recognize Appellant’s husband, H.M.M., as the father. No such evidence was presented at the hearing. In summary, paternity by estoppel is still a viable principle in Pennsylvania, however, it must be supported by an analysis of what’s in the child’s best interests to succeed.

Custody Relocation – L.A.M. v. C.R.

In this case, the appeal challenged the lower court’s decision to grant mother’s petition to relocate to Boston with the children on the basis that the provisions of the new custody law were not applied. The Superior Court upheld the lower court’s decision finding that the provisions of the new custody law did not have to be complied with since mother’s petition to relocate was filed before the new laws came into effect. The Appellant argues, however, that the hearing took place after the new laws came into effect.

The crux of the issue is how to interpret the what constitutes a proceeding under the new law. Any proceeding commenced after the effective date of the law is to be governed by the new law while any proceeding commenced before the effective date of the law is to be governed by the law in effect at the time the proceeding was initiated. The lower court found, and Superior Court affirmed, that mother’s petition was the determinative proceeding and since it was filed before the effective date of the new law, the old law should govern at the hearing.

Judge Donohue disagrees with the majority and posits that the provisions of the new custody laws should have governed over the hearing. Judge Donohue’s interpretation categorizes the hearing as a separate proceeding from the petition. Accordingly, since the hearing occurred after the effective date of the new law, it should be governed by the new law. Judge Donohue argues that this interpretation of the term proceeding allows for the “broadest possible application of the procedures and legal standards in the new Act.”

Second, Judge Donohue believes the trial court erred in allowing the mother to relocate. Under the framework of the new law which arguably should have applied, there were ten factors the trial court should have considered before ruling on the relocation pursuant to 23 Pa C.S. § 5337(h). The trial court failed to consider all the factors under the statute and for that Judge Donohue argues it erred as a matter of law in reaching its decision.

Furthermore, Judge Donohue argues the trial court did not even consider the necessary factors under the old law as outlined in Gruber. Specifically, the trial court concluded the relocation would be in the best interests of the children and substantially improve the quality of life for mother and children without evidence supporting the same. Specifically, mother did not have a job or a place to live lined up in Boston. Further, mother argued the move would also allow her to continue her education but she had not been accepted into any graduate programs in Boston. Finally, Judge Donohue was not convinced that an adequate alternative custody order could be established based on the heavy involvement of father in the children’s lives and mother’s lack of income or other resources to share transportation in the event of a move.