Disestablishment of Paternity Questioned in Nashville, Tennessee: In re James T.

September 21, 2023 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: Mother gave birth to a child. At the time, Putative Father signed a Voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity (“VAP”) in which he said, under oath, that he was the child’s biological father. So, the birth certificate listed him as the child’s father.

When the child was one week old, the child was removed from the home of Mother and Putative Father and placed in the home of Foster Mother. Later, the child was adjudicated dependent and neglected, and Foster Mother received permanent guardianship.

Three months after receiving permanent guardianship, Foster Mother petitioned to terminate the parental rights of Mother and Putative Father and adopt the child.

In discovery, Putative Father said that Mother was pregnant before he met her, he did not have sexual relations with Mother to conceive the child, and he was not the biological father of the child. Based on these admissions, Foster Mother filed to disestablish paternity. Later paternity testing confirmed that Putative Father was not the child’s biological father.

The trial court found there was a material mistake of fact at the execution of the VAP that allowed Putative Father to be named as the legal father of the child. The trial court held that Putative Father was disestablished as the child’s legal father and was no longer a legal parent in this adoption. Putative Father was removed as a party to the proceedings. The trial court went on to terminate Mother’s parental rights and approve the adoption of the child by Foster Mother.

Putative Father appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s reasoning but affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

A VAP establishes a legal relationship between the father and the child. Unless a VAP is rescinded, it is conclusive proof of that father’s paternity without further order from the court. If a VAP is not rescinded, it can only be challenged if there is a substantial likelihood that fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact existed in the execution of the VAP.

Thus, Putative Father qualified as the child’s legal parent when Foster Mother started the termination action. The question is whether the trial court properly disestablished his paternity.

The Court found the trial court erred in finding a material mistake of fact existed in the execution of the VAP:

What constitutes a material mistake of fact for purposes of Tenn. Code Ann. § 24-7-113? We have previously stated that one who signs a VAP in the sincere belief that he is the father of the child, and then later shows that he may have been mistaken about that belief, can establish a “material mistake of fact” sufficient to challenge the VAP under § 24-7-113(e)…. In the present case, there is no dispute that Putative Father knew he was not the child’s father when he signed the VAP. Therefore, the trial court’s determination that the VAP was disestablished based upon a material mistake was erroneous.

On appeal, Foster Mother argued that the VAP was properly rescinded based on fraud, even though the trial court did not base its decision on that ground.

To prove a claim for fraud, there must be proof of these elements:

  1. an intentional misrepresentation of a material fact;
  2. knowledge of the representation’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. that the plaintiff reasonably relied on the misrepresentation and suffered damages; and
  4. that the misrepresentation relates to an existing or past fact or, if the claim is based on promissory fraud, then the misrepresentation must embody a promise of future action without present intention to carry out the promise.

The Court found this the proper basis for the disestablishment of Putative Father’s paternity:

Putative Father does not dispute the first, second, and fourth elements of fraud, and the undisputed evidence supports the establishment of those elements: Both Mother and Putative Father knew that he was not the child’s biological father and, by signing the VAP, made the false representation that he was the child’s biological father a material fact. It is the third element that is in dispute here. Putative Father asserts that [Foster Mother] did not suffer any damages in reliance on the VAP.

By signing a VAP, both parties are affirming under oath that the alleged father is the child’s biological father…. The VAP is used to prepare the child’s birth certificate and as a basis for seeking child support from the man who signed the VAP.

*    *    *    *    *

This Court has recognized that, in the context of a challenge to a VAP, fraud may be established based upon a misrepresentation to the state and to the public.

In the present case, Putative Father’s false representation of paternity constituted a fraud upon the state. Moreover, Foster Mother reasonably relied upon Putative Father’s misrepresentation of paternity, reflected on the child’s birth certificate, which required her to expend money to terminate Putative Father’s parental rights in order to allow her to adopt the child. As noted above, the trial court based its decision on a mistake of fact, not on fraud. However, this Court may affirm a judgment on different grounds than those relied upon by the trial court when the trial court reached the correct result. Based upon the undisputed facts, we conclude that the trial court properly disestablished Putative Father’s status as a legal father and dismissed him as a party in the termination proceedings.

The Court reversed the trial court’s reasoning but affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

Source: In re James T. (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, August 31, 2023).

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Disestablishment of Paternity Questioned in Nashville, Tennessee: In re James T. was last modified: September 13th, 2023 by K.O. Herston

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