home DNA kits and paternity surprises

Many of you have probably seen advertisements for home DNA testing kits, like “23 and Me” and “Ancestry DNA.” These products take your saliva and analyze it for a variety of information, depending on what package you purchase. Some break down your genetic makeup by ethnicity, others look at health risk factors.

What many may not realize is that these companies also are compiling a very large DNA database. For example, people who may be looking for lost family members can “find” them through the millions in the database. It requires a person’s voluntary consent to be part of the information database that would be made available to other users.

One unusual and at times tragic side effect of these DNA services is that they can offer some surprises. As described in this story in the Atlantic, parents and children will submit their DNA as part of just a fun activity, only to find out that the two are not biologically related. For example, in the Atlantic story, a man discovered his 15-year-old daughter was not his biological child; his wife admitted to an affair, and he filed for divorce.

While one can completely empathize with a person who discovers he or she may have been deceived with regard to the parentage of a child, what legal consequences could or should flow from such a discovery?

We would first note that punishing a child for the deception of a spouse seems unduly harsh and cruel. Yes, a parent may have raised for many years a child and loved that child, and now sees the child differently because of biology. But parents who adopt know they share no biology with the child but love and raise that child. Had this DNA reveal not happened, nothing would have changed in terms of feelings. A parent should seriously evaluate the initial anger before choosing to act on it with regard to the child.

Beyond the emotional issues, the law steps in to generally protect the child.

Under Missouri law, a child born of the marriage is presumed to be the child of the two married spouses. While Missouri’s Uniform Parentage Act would allow a person like the man in the Atlantic story to file a paternity action at the same time he files for divorce, the courts generally do not like to see these cases if the mother does not know or will not reveal the biological father because it does not like to leave a child without support. The statutes as presently written have enough wiggle room that the court could choose to honor the legal presumption of paternity from the birth during the marriage over the blood test evidence if doing so would be in the best interest of the child. But a parent may also win such a case, if by “win” we mean no longer have to pay support for the child.

But at this point we return to the practical implications to the child – after raising a child for a decade or more, does that parent really want to abandon that child just because of a blood test? Over anger at being deceived? A parent needs to weigh these consequences before rushing to file papers.

DNA kits have produced a variety of surprises for families. The law needs to catch up because the DNA evidence will only continue to grow.

If you have questions about DNA and paternity, contact us – we can help.