FEBRUARY 15 , 2010 VOLUME 17, NUMBER 5
Despite being cloaked in arcane terms and arguments, the legal system usually makes sense in the real world in which it operates. Sometimes, however, it may take the legal system a few years — or a few centuries — to catch up with that real world. One illustration: the difficulties that can arise in trying to answer the deceptively simple question of paternity, especially after the death of the putative father.
Five (or so) centuries of common law developed before DNA testing for paternity became possible. During that long period courts frequently focused on the importance of protecting the family — a child born to a married woman was presumed (and almost conclusively so) to be the child of the woman’s husband.
Another important development in that long history centered on the privacy rights of all the interested parties. It became extremely difficult to force any contesting person to submit to medical testing to determine paternity. Of course, there were no particularly precise tests available until quite recently.
Today, of course, genetic testing is much more precise and useful in determining parental relationships. Does that mean that the legal system has embraced DNA tests as a means of settling disputes about paternity? Not yet.
Consider Adrian Doe, Jr.’s trusts. Mr. Doe set up a series of trusts which, upon his death, divided into equal shares for his children. At the time of his death he had two children born while he was married to their mother — Adrian III and Evelyn. He also left behind two possible children from Costa Rica, whose respective mothers both asserted that he was the father. What was the trustee to do about Maria and Madelin?
Maria’s birth certificate named Mr. Doe as her father, but Madelin’s was silent about paternity. Should the trustee assume that the records were correct, and create a trust share for one of his possible daughters but not the other?
The trustee asked the Florida probate court what it should do, and the court appointed an attorney to represent the interests of the two minor girls. One filed a request that Evelyn and Adrian III be ordered to submit to cheek swabs in order to determine whether they shared DNA with the girls. The probate court agreed with the request.
The Florida Court of Appeals, citing some of the history of paternity and privacy laws, disagreed and quashed the DNA testing order — for the moment. It did, however, note that with slightly better-developed facts Madelin’s lawyer might be able to procure a new testing order. The appellate court even went so far as to suggest some of the evidence that might demonstrate the need for the testing.
If Madelin’s mother were to explicitly state that Mr. Doe was the father, evidence before the court showed that testing the two acknowledged children would be likely to establish Madelin’s and Maria’s paternity (or prove that they were not Mr. Doe’s children), and there were an explanation as to why Mr. Doe’s DNA could not be obtained (there was some indication that he might have been cremated), then the court might approve the testing. It also would want, however, to give Evelyn and Adrian III a chance to explain any particular privacy concerns they might want the probate court to consider. Doe v. Suntrust Bank, January 29, 2010.