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As genetic testing pins down paternity issues, the definition of fatherhood gets murkier.

It is old news by now that American families today bear little resemblance to what they once were -- or, perhaps more accurately, to what people once thought they were. The 2000 Census showed a 72 percent jump in the number of unmarried couples over just a decade ago. Today, barely half of all households are headed by married couples. The traditional Ozzie and Harriet configuration -- a married couple with children -- makes up less than one-quarter of all households, down from about 40 percent a mere generation ago.

With the number of married couples dropping and the number of unmarried couples rising, it is no shock that the number of children born outside of marriage is up. In 1999, 1.3 million infants were born out of wedlock. Almost a fifth of all white children in the U.S. are born into unmarried households; among blacks, the number is closer to two-thirds.

Joe Forkan

Not that marriage guarantees the identity of a child's parents -- although the law generally presumes that a child born into a marriage is living with his real parents. Yet the reconfiguration of the family has, at the least, reformed the traditional definitions of its participants. Just as "family" now has multiple meanings, many of which probably could not have been envisioned several generations ago, so, too, does the word "father."

Start with the thirty-year-old Colorado law, filed under "Presumption of Paternity." Following centuries of law and tradition, it leans strongly toward married couples and tries to define what it calls the "natural" parents. "A man is presumed to be the natural father of a child if he and the child's natural mother are or have been married to each other and the child is born during the marriage," it begins.

However, with the shape of families ever shifting, the exceptions and permutations have begun to pile up. What, for instance, about cases in which the real parent isn't a parent at all?

In one ten-year-old divorce case out of Denver, judges had to decide whether a step-parent should be granted visitation of a child after a divorce. In saying 'yes,' the state Court of Appeals noted that the step-parent had, in effect, become the child's "psychological" parent -- not related to the child, but important enough in her life to continue acting as a parent. (Such a designation has become important in separation cases involving gay couples raising a child, as only one of the parents can by definition be biologically related to the child.)

Another Colorado case that has further defined "father" grew out of a recent Fort Collins-area probate filing. The biological father died, leaving his estate to his wife and son. When the wife began misusing the inheritance, the trustee of the young boy brought the case to court. After listening to arguments on both sides, the judge finally turned over the estate to a neighbor who had become extremely close to the boy. The man, the court decided, had become a "father figure."

The definitions can be parsed almost infinitely. One section of Colorado's law attempts to describe under what circumstances a "psychological parent" -- a non-biological parent -- can ask a judge for custody of a child.

Until a couple of years ago, the law gave a person standing if the child had been under his "physical custody" for at least six months. In recent years, local courts have had to decide what is actually meant by the words "physical custody." For example, how much of the six months was actually "quality time"? The law now reads that the child must be in the adult's "physical care" for half a year for the person to be eligible for custody -- a subtle but crucial distinction.

By the end of 1998, Ron and Anne's marriage was a partnership in name only. He says they hardly ever had sex. Once in a while, he says, he'd suggest counseling. She refused to consider it.

The end came in January 1999, when, Ron says, Anne asked him to move out of their shared bedroom and into a downstairs room. The following month, he left the house altogether. Not long after that, the couple filed for divorce.

In June 2000, Ron and Anne reached a temporary arrangement for custody and support of their children. The girls were to remain with Anne at the couple's old house; Ron was to have "reasonable and liberal parenting time." He also agreed to pay $777 per month, in two equal installments, to help Anne cover the girls' expenses.

Despite the agreement, however, with what little marriage they'd had now broken, old doubts about his daughter's lineage began replaying in Ron's mind. "I'd asked Anne on numerous occasions: 'Is there something you should be telling me?' And she'd always say no," he says.

Their daughter's increasingly grown-up features didn't help matters. At first friends had remarked how much she looked like Ron. As time went on, more and more people began talking about how she looked more like Anne's acquaintance than Ron.

Last June, as part of the divorce proceedings, Ron finally requested a paternity test. Anne resisted, arguing that there was no reason for the test. "The parentage of the parties' younger daughter is not at issue in this case," she argued in a court filing. In support of the argument, Anne's lawyer cited the basic Colorado paternity law that says a child born into a marriage is presumed to be the issue of that husband and wife.

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