Facts: Mr. King executed a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity shortly after birth of Child. Five years later, Mr. King was ordered to pay child support for Child. Shortly thereafter, Mr. King sought to rescind the Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity and compel court-approved DNA testing. Mr. King claimed he signed the Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity because Mother told him he was Child’s father. He claimed Mother “knowingly lied” about paternity, and he subsequently discovered Mother was having a sexual relationship with his roommate. Mr. King submitted an independent DNA test establishing that Father was not Child’s biological parent, which test was inadmissible evidence. After a hearing in which Mother failed to appear despite being subpoenaed, the trial court denied Mr. King’s request on the grounds that Mr. King “failed to prove fraud in the procurement of the Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity.” Mr. King appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 24-7-113 establishes a simplified procedure for unmarried fathers to legally establish their paternity without the intervention of the court by simply executing a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity (“VAP”). The mother must also sign the VAP, certifying that she is the mother and the other signatory is the father. A VAP establishes a legal relationship between the named father and the child, and constitutes a basis for establishing a child support order without requiring any further proceedings to establish paternity.
Tennessee Code Annotated § 24-7-113 also sets out the manner in which a party must challenge a VAP, including a statute of limitations providing time limits during which a VAP can be challenged. Subsection (c) of the statute allows the VAP to be rescinded within sixty days of its completion under certain circumstances. Otherwise, the VAP may be challenged within five years of its execution on the basis of “fraud, whether extrinsic or intrinsic, duress, or material mistake of fact.” Tennessee Code Annotated § 24-7-113(e)(2) further provides:
Such action shall not be barred by the five-year statute of limitations where fraud in the procurement of the acknowledgment by the mother of the child is alleged and where the requested relief will not affect the interests of the child, the state, or any Title IV-D agency.
If the court finds based upon the evidence presented at the hearing that there is substantial likelihood that fraud, duress, or a material mistake of fact existed in the execution of the acknowledgment of paternity, then, and only then, the court must order DNA paternity tests. In other words, Tennessee Code Annotated § 24-7-113 says the trial court “shall” order DNA paternity tests when the putative father satisfies the burden of proof.
In order to prove a claim for fraud, the following elements must be established:
(1) the mother made a misrepresentation of material fact;
(2) the mother had knowledge of the misrepresentation’s falsity, i.e., that the representation was made knowingly or without belief in its truth, or recklessly without regard to its truth or falsity;
(3) the putative father reasonably relied on the mother’s misrepresentation and was harmed thereby; and
(4) the mother’s misrepresentation relates to an existing or past fact.
After reviewing the record, the Court concluded:
Here, Mr. King claimed that Mother knowingly lied to him about being Son’s father, and he testified that she told him that she had not engaged in sexual relations with anyone else. It is undisputed that Mr. King had no knowledge of Mother’s relationship with his roommate when he executed the VAP. Mr. King testified that Mother refused to speak to him after he discovered her relationship with his roommate, and consequently, she had never actually admitted to having a relationship with his roommate prior to Son’s birth. However, Mr. King testified that he now believes that they were having a relationship during that time because he was working the third shift, and his roommate “would be there when I would leave.” From our review of the record, we conclude that the evidence preponderates against the juvenile court’s finding concerning fraud in the procurement of the VAP. Based upon the evidence presented at the hearing, we find that there is a substantial likelihood that Mother knowingly lied to Mr. King about her lack of sexual contact with other persons and that she was at least reckless with regard to the truth in telling Mr. King that he was Son’s father.
As noted above, a VAP can only be challenged outside the five year statute of limitations where “the requested relief will not affect the interests of the child, the state, or any Title IV-D agency.” By including this second requirement in the statute, the legislature recognized that when a VAP has gone unchallenged for over five years, it may not be in the child’s best interest to set aside the VAP, even if the named father is not the biological father. Thus, the interest in determining paternity must be weighed against the need for stability for the child, particularly in situations in which the child has long believed that the party requesting the DNA paternity test was his father.
Mr. King testified that he has no relationship with Son, as Mother had refused to allow him to see Son since the incident that occurred when Son was two years old. There was no evidence to suggest that Son has bonded with Mr. King as his father. Thus, allowing court-approved parentage tests would not cause emotional harm to Son or damage to an existing father-son relationship. . . . Moreover, Son has an interest in being supported financially by his biological father, whomever that may be. If the VAP is not rescinded, and if Mr. King is not, in fact, the biological father, then Son’s interest in receiving support from his biological father is unlikely to be realized, as neither Mother nor the State will have an incentive to pursue his biological father for support. The incentive will be lacking as long as Mr. King is paying child support.
We have previously stated that “Tennessee law strongly favors requiring biological parents to bear responsibility for their own children, and this policy also favors relieving putative fathers of the burden of supporting children who have been shown, through conclusive evidence such as DNA testing, not to be their natural offspring.”
We conclude that the juvenile court should have allowed court-approved parentage testing in order to conclusively establish whether Mr. King is the biological father of this child.
The case was remanded to the trial court for court-ordered DNA paternity testing. If the court-ordered DNA tests show Mr. King is not the father, the voluntary acknowledgement of paternity can be rescinded.
Information provided by K.O. Herston, Tennessee Divorce Lawyer.