In J.M. v. C.G., the Supreme Judicial Court affirmed a Probate Court decision dismissing a biological parent’s suit to establish paternity.
The parties in this case were the mother of a child (Amelia), the child’s biological father (M.H.), and the child’s legal father (J.M.). Amelia’s mother had been in a relationship with J.M. while Amelia was a baby. J.M. remained active in her life, including in her medical care and education, and saw Amelia nearly every day even after his relationship with her mother ended. In 2016, the mother and J.M. executed a Voluntary Acknowledgment of Parentage (VAP) to establish under G. L. c. 209C that he was Amelia’s legal father. Four years later in 2020, J.M. brought an action seeking custody and expanded parenting time with Amelia. At that time, Amelia’s biological father, M.H., filed a motion to intervene while simultaneously filing a complaint in equity and a Complaint to Establish Paternity under c. 209C. M.H.’s case faced several challenges. First, a challenge to a VAP must be brought within one year of its execution. Further, to succeed on a complaint in equity to establish parentage, a litigant must be able to demonstrate a substantial relationship with the child. After a Probate Court judge denied M.H.’s motion to intervene and dismissed both cases, M.H. appealed.
The Supreme Judicial Court found that the Probate Court had properly dismissed M.H.’s claims.
M.H. maintained that VAPs executed in the absence of biological ties to the child should not be subject to the same time limitation. The Court rejected this argument and acknowledged that a family comes in “many different forms” and does not require a “genetic connection…[to] be the exclusive basis for imposing the rights or duties of parenthood.”
With respect to the time limit imposed by statute, the Court noted that the statute establishes a timeline within which to challenge the parentage that is intended to create certainty and stability for the children of unmarried couples. To permit such challenges indefinitely would severely undercut the ability of the Court to determine what may be in the child’s best interest. Although M.H. claimed that he had not received notice of the VAP in a timely manner and, thus, the Court’s adherence to the one-year limit on VAP challenges infringed on his due process rights, the Court concluded he had the opportunity to be heard by way of his common law equity cause of action.
Turning to M.H.’s common law equity claim, the Court found that the claim failed because he was unable to demonstrate a substantial parent-child relationship with Amelia. In affirming the Probate Court’s decision, the Supreme Judicial Court noted that the Probate Court had found that M.H.’s relationship included spending time together, but M.H. “was not routinely involved in [her] health, education or welfare” and “did not support her financially or emotionally as a parent does.”