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Utah Supreme Court rules in paternity cases, opening a window for ‘alleged fathers’

Posted at 10:35 AM, Dec 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-21 12:55:28-05

SALT LAKE CITY — In a series of rulings made public Saturday, the state’s top court has opened a window for “alleged fathers” to establish paternity in the face of Utah’s notoriously tough laws.

The Utah Supreme Court issued rulings in four separate cases, and almost all of them allowed men seeking to establish paternity the ability to go to court to litigate it.

The men were challenging aspects of Utah’s Uniform Parentage Act, which presumes that when a child is born, a mother’s current husband is the child’s father. In some cases, lower courts have rejected paternity claims because the mother is married to the husband.

“The initial question before us is whether the UUPA grants standing to biological fathers—termed ‘alleged fathers’ in the statute—when another man is legally presumed to be the child’s father,” Justice Paige Petersen wrote.

The justices unanimously did not consider a constitutional challenge to the law but agreed that the “alleged fathers” should have the ability to seek to establish paternity in the court system.

“Establishing the mother-child relationship is usually a straightforward matter because the mother has given birth to the child,” Justice Petersen wrote. “But because this is not the case for the father, Utah law creates a presumption that a married mother’s husband is the father of the child if the child is born during the marriage. This presumption is rebuttable.”

An attorney for some of the men in the paternity rulings was happy with the Court’s decision.

“We are very pleased with the results,” Julie Nelson, an attorney with the appellate firm Zimmerman Booher, said in an email. “We think the previous rule yielded a grave injustice in certain cases. These cases make more sense from a statutory perspective, but also, you’ll see that the Court noted that the previous rule presented serious constitutional concerns.”

Justice Petersen suggested in the ruling that there were “serious constitutional questions” with Utah’s law that denies standing to a presumed father and they would have sided with them “even if the relevant language were ambiguous.”

Some of the cases involved affairs or separations. In one ruling, the Court did say there was a window of time a supposed biological father could seek to establish paternity. It also left intact some situations that involve adoptions or allowing judges to determine in the best interests of the child, Nelson said.

In three of the paternity cases the Utah Supreme Court ruled on, they were sent back to lower courts for further action.