Can a Man Be Ordered to Pay Child Support When He is Not the Father?

can man be ordered to pay child support if not fatherA news item out of Michigan highlights that despite a DNA test indicating Carnell Alexander is not the father of his ex-girlfriend’s child, he still must pay back to the State of Michigan $30,000 in back child support or face imprisonment. How did this happen? Is it fair? Can anything be done?

The case begins in the 1980’s. Carnell and his ex-girlfriend had a relationship but it ended – and without a child as both parties now acknowledge. But after the split, the former girlfriend had a child and did not know the identity of the father. In order to receive state assistance to care for the child, she had to name a father, so she named Carnell. She claims she had no idea the State would subsequently pursue Carnell for child support. The State did begin a search for Carnell, and eventually issued a summons to Carnell that he had been named the father. Had Carnell received the summons he would have seen that he had a limited opportunity to appear in court and challenge paternity. Carnell never received the summons because he was actually serving a prison sentence on a criminal charge. When he was released, he never learned about the paternity case.

Flash forward some eight years or so, when Carnell is stopped by a police officer for a routine traffic stop, only to learn he has an outstanding warrant for delinquent child support. Carnell began a long fight with the State and the court system, eventually securing a DNA test that proved he was not the father of the child. Further, the ex-girlfriend came forward and admitted that she knew Carnell was not the father and only named him to get financial aid. But even with all of this new evidence, the State would not forgive Carnell’s debt (though they did forgive the ex-girlfriend’s half of the debt).

Carnell continues to fight, but he may not have strong legal grounds. Why? Generally, financial assistance given by the State to a single mother because of a “deadbeat dad” is really a loan that the State intends to collect with interest against the delinquent father. Congress long ago established an interstate system for the collection of child support that created strict enforcement measures, and states do not like to leave the paternity of a child in limbo, as it leaves a child without a father and a source of financial support.

The best hope for Carnell may lie in the faulty notice given by the State in the original paternity action – the State should have known that Carnell was in prison and could not receive service at his home address.

Could this happen in Missouri?

It did happen often until the legislature amended the paternity statute. Currently, if the State institutes an action to establish support, it must give personal notice that the failure to contest will result in a judgment and the alleged father has one opportunity now to contest through a DNA test for which the State must pay. Also, if the State waits years after the fact to establish support, the State can only get back child support for up to five years preceding the start of the case. When the legislature last amended the statute, it created a two-year window for anyone under a support order to come forward and challenge paternity and be relieved of any debt. But beginning January 1, 2012, any man adjudged the father of a child has only two years from the date of the paternity judgment to challenge paternity – after the end of two years, even if truly not the father, that individual must pay child support. So, any alleged father who acts as Carnell did will find himself out of luck because of the statute of limitations to set aside the judgment of paternity.

Is it fair that a man in Missouri could be ordered to pay years of support just because he did not come forward within two years to set aside the judgment of paternity? On the one hand, no one likes to see the State force a man to pay support for a child when he is not really the father, particularly if the mother of the child misled the man into believing he was the father. But we have statutes of limitations in all civil actions, and they are strictly enforced. We do so because we do not like to have uncertainty hanging over a party for years. In the case of paternity, we do not like to have children unsupported or without a father. So, the lesson of the law is that any man who has even a scintilla of doubt about parentage should challenge paternity from the very outset and not let the time pass to the point it will be too late.

If you have questions about setting aside a judgment of paternity and support, contact our St. Louis family law attorneys – we can help.