Facts: In the parties’ divorce in 1991, both parties testified under oath that Mother was currently pregnant but Father was not the biological father. Mother later gave birth, and Father had no relationship with the child. Fast forward 18 years when the State filed a petition to establish Father’s paternity of child. Father argued that the 1991 divorce ruling judicially established that Father was not the biological parent. The State responded by arguing the 1991 divorce ruling was void as against public policy because it relieved Father of his legal obligation to support his child. The State also produced a DNA test conclusively establishing that Father was, in fact, the biological parent of the child. The trial court accepted Father’s arguments and dismissed the State’s petition. The State appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
Public Policy. The State argued that the 1991 paternity determination set forth in the divorce decree violated public policy, and therefore, is void. Tennessee’s public policy has been abundantly clear “since time immemorial . . . that a parent is under a duty to support his children. The Court has repeatedly found that agreements, incorporated in court decrees or otherwise, which relieve a natural or adoptive parent of his or her obligation to provide child support are void as against public policy. Father argued this public policy applies to agreements, not court-ordered determinations. The Court rejected Father’s argument, stating:
[W]e find it is simply a distinction without a difference. [Father] repeatedly asserts the agreement/court order distinction, but he fails to advance a reason for such. Finding none, we decline to restrict the application of [the public policy’s] prohibition against relieving a parent of his or her support duty to situations in which a paternity agreement is reduced to writing prior to its incorporation into a court order. Because the [1991 divorce] effectively relieved [Father], an alleged natural parent, of his parental obligations, we find the paternity provisions of the [1991 divorce] are void as against public policy. Therefore, the trial court abused its discretion in denying Rule 60.02 relief from a void judgment.
Res Judicata. Father then argued the State’s motion should be dismissed on the basis of res judicata. Res judicata is a doctrine of claim preclusion which bars a second suit between the same parties or their privies on the same cause of action with respect to all issues which were or could have been litigated in the former suit. A party asserting the res judicata defense must show (1) that a court of competent jurisdiction rendered the prior judgment, (2) that the prior judgment was final and on the merits, (3) that both proceedings involved the parties or their privies, and (4) that both proceedings involved the same cause of action.
The Court made quick work of this argument, finding “no merit in [Father’s] argument that the [1991 divorce’s] paternity provision is entitled to res judicata effect. As this Court [has previously] noted, where a parent is relieved of his or her parental obligations in violation of public policy, ‘the court may, sua sponte, set aside a void order or a void agreement incorporated within an order or decree.'”
Retrospective Laws. Lastly, Father argued it was improper to apply Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-2-304(b)(4) retroactively. The statute provides:
In any case, except terminations of parental rights or adoption under this title or title 37, in which the paternity of a child is at issue and an agreed order or divorce decree has been entered finding that an individual is not the parent of the child, the finding shall not be entitled to preclusive effect unless the finding was based upon scientific tests to determine parentage that excluded the individual from parentage of the child in question.
The Tennessee Supreme Court has characterized a retrospective law as one that takes away or impairs vested rights acquired under existing laws. Although the characteristics of vested rights elude precise definition, the court views a vested right as one “which it is proper for the state to recognize and protect and of which the individual could not be deprived without injustice.” It also adopted a multi-factor analysis for identifying vested rights that includes consideration of the following factors: (1) whether the public interest is advantaged or retarded by the challenged statute; (2) whether the challenged statute gives effect or defeats the affected person’s bona fide intentions or reasonable expectations, and (3) whether the statute surprises persons who have long relied on a contrary state of the law.
In a prior case, the Court ruled that the prohibition of agreements relieving parental obligations could be applied retroactively because “the parties never had the right under any law to illegitimate the child.” Applying this reasoning, the Court found that Father had no vested right in not being a parent and he had no right to illegitimate his alleged child regardless of the passage of time.
Accordingly, the trial court was reversed.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.