Odd Man Out: Paternity and Married Moms (Part One)

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Paternity cases typically involve establishing parentage for a child born outside of marriage. Paternity statutes emerged as a way to protect children born outside of marriage, to assure that the natural father would provide financial support. One usually does not see a paternity challenge for a child born inside of marriage – but these cases do happen, as a current Florida dispute demonstrates.

The facts are relatively simple. Sonja Shott Grecco was married but separated from her husband when she began having a relationship with John Karpinski, a relationship that lasted on and off for five years. During the relationship, Sonja became pregnant with John’s child. Sonja did not hide the fact that John was the biological father, and John claims he built a relationship with the child in the first 18 months of his life. Sonja counters that John provided diapers but little else, and that she only allowed John contact with the child because she did not understand Florida law.

So what about Florida law did Sonja not understand? In Florida, if a child is born during the marriage, it is presumed to be the natural offspring of its married parents. Given this presumption, Florida law does not allow a putative father to file a paternity suit unless he shows that he has built a bond and relationship with the child. The statute reasonably seeks to preserve the marriage and give the child only one father, avoiding confusion and disruption.

Once Sonja understood Florida law, she began using it to her advantage, or so argues John. She would not let John have any contact with the child, and she resumed her relationship with her husband and testified she never intended to divorce him in the first place.

The trial judge heard evidence from Sonja and John and will decide in a few weeks whether to let John proceed with his paternity suit. If John wins, John will be able to establish himself as the father and will have an obligation of support as well as custody rights. If John loses, Sonja’s husband – who has no biological relation to the child – will remain the father with full rights and responsibilities.

Why is this case so complicated? Should not the biological father have an easy path to establishing his parental status? Should not the child be raised by his biological father?

The simple answer has to do with the history of paternity actions. In general, paternity suits were designed to avoid bastardizing a child, not as a means to break up a marriage. Preserving the intact marriage took precedence. But in today’s world, that outdated concept of parentage no longer resonates with reality, where more and more people have committed relationships and children without marriage and without stigma. The law in many ways has not kept up with social change. However, biology alone should not determine a child’s future. It may be in the best interest of the child to remain in the intact relationship. It leaves the courts to ask when biology alone should translate into parental rights.

In our next post, we will discuss how this case would play out under Missouri law.

If you have questions about paternity for children born during marriage, contact us – we can help.