Courts are no stranger to requests for paternity tests. Usually, it involves a question of one or more individuals, each claiming or disclaiming biological parentage, of an unborn or newborn baby. Potential parents often want to determine this question at the start of a child's life, sometimes for custody or financial reasons. It is much less common for a paternity test to be ordered by the court later in the child's life, but it does happen. The question in these cases is governed by the New Jersey Parentage Act ("NJPA"), which focuses on financial support for the child, but is still interested in the wellbeing of the child. The New Jersey Appellate Court recently applied the NJPA in the recent case of R.R. v. J.M.
A mother wanted to overturn a court's prior order denying her a mandatory paternity test from her former husband. At the time she first sought the order in 2016, her son, J.R. was already fourteen years old. She and her former husband, B.R., divorced in 2005, and she was bringing up the issue of J.R.'s paternity ten years after their divorce. She said that J.R.'s father was actually J.M. The court initially denied her request to compel mandatory paternity testing. The mother asserted in her appeal that it was "nearly impossible" for B.R. to be J.R.'s biological father because their sexual encounters were too "infrequent" and testified that he was impotent. B.R. denied these accusations and claimed that the sexual intercourse was "more than infrequent." In contrast, she stated that she and J.M. had sex "weekly, sometimes bi-weekly." J.M., though, argued that he only saw her "a couple of times, three, four times in a year."
J.M. had no involvement in J.R.'s life. The mother never mentioned the possibility that he could be the father, saying that she did not consider that J.M. could be J.R.'s father - until J.R.'s appearance changed. J.M. never acknowledged paternity, or potential paternity, never sent cards or letters about the pregnancy, or visited J.R., or provided financial support for J.R. The trial court looked at a photo of J.R. and accepted testimony that he shared some physical similarities with J.R. - including eyebrow resemblance, hair line and crooked front teeth.
Ultimately, the court had to decide - in light of the evidence - whether a paternity test was appropriate. A paternity test is not an automatic right, and requires the court to balance certain interests. In this case, the court looked to the NJPA. One of its primary goals is to "ensure that children receive financial support from their parents to which they are entitled." It sketches eleven separate factors to consider when deciding whether genetic testing is a good idea or not. Here, the court looked closely at four:
- " The length of time between the proceeding to adjudicate parentage and the time that the presumed or acknowledged father was placed on notice that he might not be the genetic father."
The court noted that the plaintiff mother waited over 14 years before ever filing an application to question the paternity of J.R.
- " The nature of the relationship between the child and the presumed or acknowledged father."
The court looked at the fact that B.R. was the only father that the J.R. knew and that he has provided financial support for J.R. throughout the years.
- "The degree of physical, mental, and emotional harm that may result to the child if presumed or acknowledged paternity is successfully disproved."
The court looked closely at this factor and noted that while the plaintiff mother might have been willing to risk emotional harm to her son if B.R. was not, in fact, J.R.'s father, the court was not of the same opinion. It noted that J.R. had spent most of his life in the middle of a custody dispute between the mother and B.R., and that to inflict additional emotional problems on J.R., such as those which could arise out of the possibility that someone else was his father and the accompanying feelings of rejection, was too much of an injury to risk.
The court also found the mother to be an unreliable witness due to inconsistent testimony, but it was most interested in J.R.'s wellbeing. The Appeals Court upheld the denial of the request for paternity. The Family Court is mostly concerned with the wellbeing of the child. Even when other laws, such as the NJPA, may apply to a case, it will often includes an assessment of whether there will be harm done to the child.