Florida Supreme Court: Sorry we’ve mucked up paternity law for 75 years

The Florida Supreme Court released the long-awaited opinion in Simmonds v. Perkins, holding unanimously that the world of paternity has changed in the last 75 years and courts need to catch up.

The case involves a man, Connor Perkins, who was the unquestionably biological father of a child. He raised the child with the mother, and sometimes without her, and held himself out as the father. The mother was married at the time of the child’s birth and later objected to Mr. Perkins’ assertion of paternity based on that marriage. The husband was not involved with the child at all.

The trial court ruled that it was constrained by case law to dismiss Mr. Perkin’s petition for paternity because of the strong presumption of legitimacy of children born into intact marriages. Mr. Perkins appealed. The Fourth District Court of Appeal reversed, saying that case law grants bio-fathers standing when “common sense and reason are outraged” by applying the presumption of paternity.

The mother then appealed to the Florida Supreme Court on the basis that the district courts had developed conflicting rules on this situation. The Florida Supreme Court agreed that there was a conflict, but resolved it in favor of the Fourth District’s reasoning that there should be no absolute bar to a biological father asserting paternity over a child.

The opinion walks through the history of paternity rulings, pointing out the ways that life is very different today. In the old days only husbands could challenge paternity because you could only disprove (not prove) paternity by proving lack of access. Now we have DNA tests. The opinion essentially apologizes for years of tortured paternity rulings, including the “outraged” standard cited by the Fourth District, finding this language “unhelpful and unnecessary.” The opinion also retreats from cases that suggest that legitimacy is the touchstone in these cases.

Instead, the standard is this: a “biological father” who has “manifested a substantial and continuing concern” for the welfare of a child, can overcome the presumption of paternity when there is a “clear and compelling reason” based “primarily on the child’s best interests.” This must be done by clear and convincing evidence.

The opinion is careful to (foot)note that, despite adopting a clear and convincing standard akin to a termination of parental rights, it is not saying that the biological father has to prove abuse, abandonment, or neglect by the mother’s husband in order to prevail. Likewise, the opinion notes that even evidence that the husband has maltreated the child “might not be dispositive.”

Requiring a ruling based “primarily on the child’s best interests” does not mean exclusively, however. The opinion ends by noting that the balance between competing interests — including the married couple’s right to privacy and the due process rights of everyone involved — is best weighed by “a careful and conscientious fact finder familiar with the particularities of a given case” and not by blanket rules from case law. Proving “best interests” seems more reachable than proving something “outrages common sense.” But given the notoriously ill-defined legal contours of the “best interests” of a child, the Court may have gone from confused standards to none at all.

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