By Teresa A. Griffin, Faegre Baker Daniels LLP
On November 23, 2016, the Indiana Court of Appeals decided Sheetz v. Sheetz, holding that a husband is equitably estopped from rebutting the presumption that he is a child’s biological father. In doing so, the Court of Appeals, Chief Judge Vaidik, author of the majority opinion and Judge Najam, author of the dissent, dish out plenty of fodder for the parties to seek transfer to the Supreme Court on this issue.
Husband and Wife were married and while Husband was in prison; Wife became pregnant by another man. Nevertheless, Husband agreed to raise the child as his own and did so for twelve years. Husband was present at the child’s birth and signed the child’s birth certificate. He also told Wife not to contact the biological father, not to seek support from him, and not to institute paternity proceedings. Wife filed for divorce in May 2014. Husband did not object to Wife’s claim that the child was a child of the marriage. The trial court then entered provisional orders for Husband to pay child support for the child. Again, Husband did not object to paying child support for the child. At the final hearing, the parties entered into evidence a stipulation that although the child was born during the marriage, Husband is not the child’s biological father. In dissolving the parties’ marriage, the trial court found that Husband induced Wife “to forego establishment of paternity and child support for [the child] from his biological father, and promised that he would provide support for him.” The trial court concluded that Husband was “estopped from denying his obligations to [the child]” because “[t]o hold otherwise would be unjust” and “an injustice to a young man who was led to believe that [Husband] [was] his father when he is not.” The trial court therefore ordered Husband to pay child support for the child.
The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Court of Appeals first noted that a stipulation is not enough to rebut the presumption that a husband is the biological father of a child. However, because of the facts of this case, the Court of Appeals reasoned that Husband is equitably estopped from rebutting the presumption that he is the child’s biological father. Noting that “[t]he purpose of equitable estoppel is to preclude a person from asserting a right when he has led another to form the reasonable belief that the right would not be asserted, and loss or prejudice to the other would result if the right were asserted[,]” the Court of Appeals reasoned that Wife’s personal opportunity to establish paternity has long passed and that her opportunity to establish it as the child’s next friend is diminished under the circumstances. The Court of Appeals cited two Supreme Court cases Levin v. Levin, 645 N.E.2d 601 (Ind. 1994) and Russell v. Russell, 682 N.E.2d 513, 517 (Ind. 1997) in support of its equitable estoppel reasoning (while the dissent argues these cases do not apply). The Court of Appeals disapproved of other cases (cited by the dissent) to the extent that they hold that the doctrine of equitable estoppel can never be applied to cases like this. Finally, the Court of Appeals reasoned that public policy supports applying equitable estoppel upon these facts, because if not, the child essentially would be left without a father. The Court of Appeals went so far as to say that should equitable estoppel not have applied here, on the basis of public policy, the Court of Appeals would have remanded the case to the trial court for it to withhold acceptance of the parties’ stipulation until such time as paternity was established in the biological father. Judge Baker concurred.
Judge Najam filed a dissenting opinion, reasoning that the majority opinion of the Court of Appeals was contrary to law and arguing – based on public policy – that there is no equitable paternity in Indiana. Judge Najam further argued that the Supreme Court’s opinions in other cases made it clear that the Court has approved of the conclusion that equity does not supplant the statutory scheme. Judge Najam argued that Wife’s recourse is to file for paternity, and because she has an adequate remedy at law, equity is unavailable to her. Judge Najam wrote that the trial court and the Court of Appeals usurped a policy question that belongs to the legislature and called out the opinion as a “radical departure from our well-settled family law.” Judge Najam predicts that “[i]f the majority opinion stands, it will not only reverse decades of precedent but will also introduce uncertainty into child support determinations.” Judge Najam anticipates that “[i]n order to avoid the risk of an “equitable” child support order, a husband who knows or suspects that his wife’s child is not his child but is the child of another man will now be encouraged, if not compelled, to disavow paternity as soon as possible and rupture the marriage rather than to keep the marriage and family intact.”
The opinion is available here.
If you would like to submit content or write an article for the Family Law Section page, please email Kara Sikorski at ksikorskI@indybar.org.