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Paternity Fraud Continues to be a Devastating Problem for Some, But Progress is Being Made

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Paternity Fraud Continues to be a Devastating Problem for Some, But Progress is Being Made


February 19, 2024. Updated on February 26, 2024

Paternity fraud refers to the misattribution by a mother of the identity of the child’s father. Paternity fraud is a big problem in the United States. Some studies estimate that as many as 30% of births are attributed to the wrong father, who is forced to pay years of child support for a child who is not his.

This case reveals the extent to which some women will go to get child support:

Bachelor Paternity Case in Court! Clayton Echard Wins Big.

Echard has maintained over the last nine months that Owens was never pregnant and that the entire lawsuit was based on fraud. Legal filings allege that Owens wore a fake pregnancy belly, provided Echard with faked sonograms, went to the media to ruin Echard’s reputation, refused discovery, and would not allow Echard to speak to her alleged doctors. Further investigation into the case found that Owens had taken at least two other men to court with similar allegations in the past.

Owens tried to have the case against Echard dismissed in January when she filed a motion claiming she was “no longer pregnant,” hoping the entire thing would get scrapped. Echard’s attorneys filed a motion to continue the court process to prove that the allegations she made were in bad faith and based on lies.

Effects on the Child

Paternity fraud is not only harmful to the father; it also causes psychological trauma to the child when they discover they are the victims of paternity fraud.

This 2018 story from The Atlantic reveals how DNA ancestry companies train their staff to help clients deal with the trauma of discovering their fathers weren’t who they thought.


“Each person comes into our group thinking they are a freak.”

It was Ancestry DNA’s customer-service rep who had to break the news to Catherine St Clair.

For her part, St Clair thought she was inquiring about a technical glitch. Her brother—the brother who along with three other siblings had gifted her the DNA test for her birthday—wasn’t showing up right in her family tree. It was not a glitch, the woman on the line had to explain gently, if this news can ever land gently: The man St Clair thought of as her brother only shared enough DNA with her to be a half-sibling. In fact, she didn’t match any family members on her father’s side. Her biological father must be someone else.

And a more recent article from El Pais:

Who is my father? The psychological impact of at-home DNA tests

At a time in which paternity is diffuse and expansive, science provides the ultimate certainty. But can you handle it?

El Pais, Dec. 29, 2023

Never before in history has it been so easy to confirm paternity, nor to discover discrepancies, with such certainty. In 2018, the DNA NPE Friends Facebook community established a non-profit support group. At the beginning of 2023 there were approximately 8,900 people registered. A qualitative study published in 2021 by Michele Grethel and collaborators from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles (UCLA), reports the impact on the identity of 27 participants between 40 and 70 years old, with a mean age of 50 years, who discovered an unexpected paternity as a result of an at-home DNA test. None of them were indifferent, or optimistic, about the discovery.

These children revealed feelings of shock, denial, anger, fear, confusion and isolation. Their extreme emotional reactions and bodily sensations — feeling frozen, dazed, overwhelmed — were common. Many tried to track down their newly discovered relatives, describing the process as an emotional roller coaster.

Misattributed paternity (which is one of several euphemisms for paternity fraud) can have serious medical consequences. Medicine is becoming increasingly personalized and tailored to patients’ genetic backgrounds. These therapies are less effective – or sometimes even counterproductive – if patients don’t have an accurate picture of their ancestry.

As a result, the medical profession is beginning to address the paternity fraud problem:

An old problem in a new age: Revisiting the clinical dilemma of misattributed paternity

Clinical genetics has wrestled with the problem of misattributed paternity for decades. While there are no clear directives on policy, surveys suggest that genetics professionals are inclined to avoid disclosure when possible. Changes associated with the increased use of genomic testing will alter the context and may limit the benefits of non-disclosure. Multi-site testing will preclude the uncertainty often associated with single-gene testing. Increased use of genetic testing in clinical and non-clinical settings will create new opportunities for the subsequent unmasking of misattributed relationships, as will the presence of test results in the electronic medical record. Family health history information will become more valuable as it is used more often and to better effect in risk assessment, diagnosis, treatment and reproductive decision-making. These changes associated with genomic testing increase the risks and decrease the benefits associated with the nondisclosure of misattributed paternity. For ethical and practical reasons, genetics professionals, and those who advise them, should consider a greater emphasis on the value of carefully planned disclosure.

Legislative Response

Lay people, and even lawyers, are often shocked when they read about the cavalier way in which American law treats paternity fraud. In a nutshell, a society that is focused solely on reproductive freedom for women turns a blind eye to reproductive freedom for men. Needless to say, this is an egregious equal protection violation.

Fortunately, many states are starting to address the problem of paternity fraud. Tennessee has been a leader in this regard. In 2022, Tennessee enacted a new law that criminalizes paternity fraud. Under the new law, a person commits “parentage fraud” if the person:

(1)   Seeks to legally establish the individual as the biological parent of a child in the person’s custody with intent to deprive the individual of property or to prevent the child’s actual biological parent from exercising parental rights to the child and the person knows or reasonably should know that the individual is not the child’s biological parent; or

(2)   Seeks to be legally established as a child’s parent based on the person’s status as a biological parent of the child and the person knows or reasonably should know that the person is not the child’s biological parent.

“Parentage fraud” is a Class A misdemeanor. The new law passed the Tennessee legislature by overwhelming margins. This article explains more about the Tennessee law:

New proposed bill will protect Tennessee’s parents from paternity fraud | Opinion

Rep. Antonio Parkinson’s proposed bill will insure that the actual biological father is listed on the birth certificate of the child.

Recently I was approached by a young man who told me he had been in a long-term relationship. Together they had a son and he signed the voluntary acknowledgement of paternity (VAP). They were not married.

Five years later, he found out the mother had been unfaithful during the time they were together. He and the child took a DNA test. The results proved that he was not the father. Subsequently, the relationship ended. The woman then sued him for child support.

In Juvenile Court, he presented the DNA evidence to the magistrate and was basically told, “somebody’s got to feed him and it will be you.” He was ordered to pay child support and found in arrears. Eventually his license was suspended and he was pulled over and jailed for driving on a suspended license.

Sitting in jail, he lost his job.

Because he voluntarily signed and it had passed a 5-year period to rescind the voluntary acknowledgment, he was deemed the legal parent. Through this process, the actual, biological parent’s child was stolen from him.

Finally, under this scenario, the child’s right to have their legal biological father listed on their birth certificate and in some cases, their lives, was stolen from them also.

The year before, Tennessee enacted a law that removes the five-year statute of limitations for challenging a voluntary acknowledgment of paternity on the grounds of fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact.

About 10 states now allow recovery for paternity fraud. while another eight do not. The recent trend is toward allowing recovery. Here are states that allow recovery for paternity fraud:

DiMichele v. Perrella, 51 Conn. L. Rptr. 750 (Conn. Super. Ct. 2011); Koelle v. Zwiren, 672 N.E.2d 868 (Ill. App. Ct.. 1996); Dier v. Peters, 815 N.W.2d I (Iowa 2012); Denzik v. Denzik, 197 S.W.3d 108 (Ky. 2006); Mansfield v. Neff, 31 Mass. L. Rptr. 616 (Mass. Super. Ct. 2014); G.A.W., III v. D.M.W., 596 N.W.2d 284 (Minn. Ct. App. 1999); R.A.C. v. P.J.S., Jr., 927 A.2d 97 (N.J. 2007); Miller v. Miller, 956 P.2d 887 (Ok. 1998); Hodge v. Craig, 382 S.W.3d 325 (Tenn. 2012); Masters v. Worsley, 777 P.2d 499 (Utah Ct. App. 1989).

Here are states that do not allow recovery for paternity fraud:

Coulson v. Steiner, 2015 WL 10013667 (D. Alaska 2015); Nagy v. Nagy, 210 Cal.App.3d 1262 (Cal. Ct. App. 1989); Steve H. v. Wendy S., 960 P.2d 510, 67 Cal.Rptr.2d 90 (Cal. Ct. App. 1998); Grand v. Hope, 617 S.E.2d 593 (Ga. Ct. App. 2005); Doe v. Doe, 747 A.2d 617 (Md. 2000); Renel v. Fortuna, 2014 WL 4628811 (Mich. Ct. App. 2014); Day v. Heller, 653 N.W.2d 475 (Neb. 2002); Hevey v. Hundley, 2013 WL 5782924 (Tex. App. 2013); Koestler v. Pollard, 471 N.W.2d 7 (Wis. 1991); St. Hilaire v. DeBlois, 721 A.2d 133 (Vt. 1998).

Judicial Response

In 2011, a case titled Hodge v. Craig, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that a man could sue his ex-wife for paternity fraud. “We have determined that the existing common law action for intentional misrepresentation encompasses the claims made in this case by the former husband and that the trial court’s damage award based on the former husband’s post-divorce payments for child support, medical expenses, and insurance premiums is not an improper retroactive modification of the former husband’s child support obligation.”  (At least nine other states, including Iowa, similarly allow recovery for paternity fraud.)

Developments in Nebraska

The Nebraska Supreme Court has persistently enabled paternity fraud.  That is obviously bad policy from a legal perspective – courts shouldn’t tolerate any kind of fraud.  As the Iowa Supreme Court noted when it rejected the Nebraska Supreme Court’s hands-off approach to paternity fraud, “We recognize fraud as a cause of action partly to deter lying. One good reason to allow fraud claims to go forward in the area of paternity fraud is to avoid the situation that has allegedly arisen here.” In a long line of cases, the Nebraska Supreme Court has consistently enabled paternity fraud.

In March, 2022 for example, the Nebraska Supreme Court held in a split 4-3 decision that a man who DNA testing had already shown to be the father of two new-born children did not have standing to establish legal rights to his children.  The opinion, written by Chief Justice Michael Heavican, used a tortured application of the standing doctrine to reverse a trial decision and prevent the biological father from asserting rights to his own children.  Under the court’s interpretation, it’s unclear how a biological father could ever assert legal rights to a child in this situation. The dissent summarizes the problem in a single sentence:  “[t]he majority concludes that our statutory presumption of legitimacy as applied to children born in a marriage is rebuttable and, yet, operates to preclude interested parties from rebutting it.”  Chaterjee v. Chaterjee, 313 Neb. 710 (2023).

In a 2014 case, the Nebraska Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision and held that a man who was falsely told he was the father of a child had to pay child support to the biological father.  State ex rel. B.M. v. Brian F.,  288 Neb. 106 (2014).  See also “Man who isn’t biological dad responsible for child support, court finds,” Lincoln Journal Star (May 16, 2014), available at

In a 2002 case, the Nebraska Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision and held that a man who was falsely told he was the father of a child could not bring a claim for damages against a biological mother based on paternity fraud because it was “contrary to public policy.”  Day v. Heller, 264 Neb. 934 (2002).  Paternity fraud appears to be the only fraud for which the Nebraska Supreme Court refuses to provide a remedy.

It’s worth noting that subsequent courts that considered the Nebraska Supreme Court holding in Day have rejected its reasoning.  In the 2012 case of Dier v. Peters, for example, the Iowa Supreme Court extensively discussed the earlier Nebraska decision but was “not persuaded.”  As the Iowa court noted:

Also, we need to consider the public policy implications of an opposite ruling. We recognize fraud as a cause of action partly to deter lying. One good reason to allow fraud claims to go forward in the area of paternity fraud is to avoid the situation that has allegedly arisen here. We have emphasized that “public policy” is not predicated on this court’s “generalized concepts of fairness and justice.”