By Claire K. Forkner
The Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC” or the Court) recently issued an important decision in a paternity case reaffirming the substantial protection accorded to all family units, including those formed out of wedlock, and rejecting arguments that putative biological paternity, alone, confers a special status to disrupt the legally protected bonds of these family units. In J.M. v. C.G., 492 Mass. 459 (2023), the SJC affirmed a Probate and Family Court decision dismissing paternity claims of a putative biological father that were brought four years after another man executed a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity (“VAP”) and had developed a close parental relationship with the child. In affirming the lower court decision, the SJC found that the putative biological father’s challenge to the VAP was time barred by a one-year statute of limitations. The SJC further found that the putative biological father’s equitable claim for paternity failed because he was unable to show the required “substantial parent-child relationship.”
At the time the child in question (Amelia) was born, in February of 2013, no father was listed on her birth certificate. When Amelia was 8 months old, she and her mother (C.G.) moved in with her mother’s former boyfriend (J.M.) with whom C.G. had co-parented another child. J.M. treated Amelia as his biological child and the evidence showed that the child believed him to be her father from the time she could speak. C.G. and J.M. did not live together for long – C.G. moved in with a new partner months after moving in with J.M. After C.G. and Amelia moved out, J.M. continued to take what the trial court found to be an active role in parenting Amelia, including being involved in her education and medical care.
Shortly before Amelia’s fourth birthday, her mother, C.G., and J.M. executed a VAP under G.L. c. 209C to establish J.M. as the child’s legal father.
More than three years later, when Amelia was seven-years-old, J.M. sought legal custody and expanded parenting time of Amelia following a disagreement he had with C.G. The footnotes of the case reference that at that time the relationship between J.M. and C.G. was strained. Amelia’s putative biological father (M.H.) sought to intervene in the action between J.M. and C.G. through both a complaint in equity and a complaint pursuant to G.L. c. 209C. This was the first time M.H. filed any legal action. The trial court dismissed both of M.H.’s complaints and denied his Motion to Intervene in the underlying action between Amelia’s two legal parents.
Complaint Pursuant to G.L. c. 209C
G.L. c. 209C has a clear one-year time limit to contest a VAP. The SJC found that M.H.’s 209C complaint was barred by this limit because he filed more than three years late. Although M.H. contended that the limit should not apply to him as a biological father, the SJC ruled that the limit could not and should not be ignored because the purpose of the VAP is to provide “stability and permanency with regard to the parentage of nonmartial children.” See Paternity of Cheryl, 434 Mass. 23, 30 (2001), citing G.L. c. 209C, § 11 (“There is a compelling public interest in the finality of paternity judgments”). M.H. also argued that the VAP was invalid on its face because it was signed with the knowledge that J.M. is not Amelia’s biological father. Here, the SJC rejected M.H.’s argument by referencing Adoption of a Minor, 471 Mass. 373, 378 n. 8 (2015), stating that the Court has long recognized that “families take many different forms” and that thus “a genetic connection between parent and child can no longer be the exclusive basis for imposing the rights or duties of parenthood.” Further, the Court found no due process violation because M.H. retained the right to claim paternity through a common-law action using the lower court’s equity jurisdiction.
Complaint in Equity
To establish paternity using the court’s equity jurisdiction, a putative father needs to demonstrate a substantial parent-child relationship by clear and convincing evidence. C.C. v. A.B., 406 Mass. 679, 689-691 (1990). On appeal, M.H. first contended that the substantial parent-child relationship standard should not apply because the mother and J.M. did not live together and, therefore, they did not have a family unit worth protecting. The Court strongly rejected this argument, reaffirming its view that policy concerns about avoiding potential disruptions to a family unit apply equally to marital families and those acknowledged out of wedlock by a VAP. See G.L. c. 209C, § 1; Smith v. McDonald, 458 Mass. 540, 546 (2010) (“the legal equality of nonmartial children pursuant to G.L. c. 209C, sec 1, dictates the same rule apply for children in comparable circumstances”). The Court further noted that “protecting the best interests of the child” held paramount importance. And, in that regard, the Court was convinced that Amelia’s best interests were served and had been served by J.M. as her father – a man who the Court noted had been known to Amelia as her father since she was a baby. The Court also noted that Amelia spent more than one-half of her time with him and that he had taken an active role in every part of her life so that there was clearly a relationship to protect regardless of the fact that her father was not and never had been married to her mother. Finally, with respect to M.H.’s need to show a substantial parent-child relationship, the Court found that although M.H. and Amelia had a positive and caring relationship, M.H. did not meet his burden. The Court appeared to rely on the facts that M.H. did not and had not provided Amelia financial or emotional support as a parent does and was not routinely involved in her education, health, or welfare.
The Court affirmed the trial court’s decisions in all respects and M.H. was unable to move forward on either of his actions. Amelia’s parentage was challenged but unchanged in her best interests. Given the decisive action taken by the Court in this case, it may be that we will not see similar challenges to parentage solely on the basis of the challenging party being a biological parent. Another effect of this decision might be a focus of claims of putative biological fathers on development of the substance of their parent-child relationship and attending to the best interests of the child rather than overvaluing the meaning of their biological connection.
Claire K. Forkner is a partner at Lee & Rivers LLP where she concentrates her practice on all aspects of family law.