Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I are about to get a divorce. We have a one-year old boy and she’s pregnant with our second. Here’s the problem: She’s been having an affair for the past two years and I’m concerned that the children aren’t actually mine. What can I do to protect myself?
A: I’m sorry about your situation. Divorce is never easy, and it’s even tougher when you’ve been cheated on and children are involved.
Hire a lawyer immediately. Then get DNA tests for you and the children. Expect to pay upwards of $400 for the testing, but given the horror stories I’ve heard from men in your situation, it’s a worthwhile expense.
Your goal is to avoid becoming a victim of “Paternity Fraud.” This is when a mother lies about who a child’s father is for the purposes of monetary gain. In your case, you could be on the hook for 18 or more years of child support for a child or children who aren’t yours.
The bad news is that paternity fraud is not uncommon. The American Association of Blood Banks found that 30 percent of the men in paternity tests are ruled out as the biological father (other studies put that number at 4 – 25 percent).
The good news (if there is such a thing in this kind of situation) is that because you’re early in the process, you may be able to stop paternity fraud before it happens. If the DNA tests show that you’re not the father, ask your lawyer how to challenge paternity. Depending on where you live, you’ll typically have 6 – 24 months to do so. Don’t let that window of opportunity close.
One man received a bill for $75,000 in back child support. That came a quite a surprise, since he didn’t think he had any children. He tracked down his ex-girlfriend and his child and got a paternity test, which proved conclusively that he was not the father. But because he hadn’t challenged paternity soon enough he was still held responsible for the arrears.
In another case, a dad found 18 months after his divorce that the child he’d been paying support for was not his. The mother admitted she lied about the child’s paternity, but because the deadline to challenge had passed, dad’ll be paying $1200/month for the next 15 years—more than $200,000!
Unfortunately, even challenging paternity within the window doesn’t guarantee that you’ll avoid being defrauded. In many states, when a child is born during a marriage, the husband is presumed to be the father—biology is irrelevant. So even if DNA shows that he’s not the father, he’ll still owe child support.
Why are the courts making men pay for children who aren’t theirs, whom they may never have met or known about or have no legal rights to see? Unfortunately, it’s big business. Many states receive government funds for every child support claim they issue, and they may take a percentage of money collected—often to the tune of tens of millions of dollars per year.
The big complication here is that you undoubtedly love your son and you may decide that you want to claim him as your own regardless of what a paternity test might show. This means that you’ll need to work out custody and child-support arrangements with your ex. Be aware, though, that if someone else orders a paternity test later (say she marries the man she’s been having the affair with and wants him to be daddy) and you’re ruled out as the child’s father, you could lose your custodial rights altogether.