Sex, lies and a baby: When dads discover they aren't the father after all

Misattributed paternity is more common than you might think.
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Misattributed paternity is more common than you might think.

One of the benefits of being a woman is that you know for certain if you have become a parent. Men on the other hand are reliant on someone else to tell them.

When that someone else isn't honest, things can get very messy.

UK man Jamie Somers recently found this out the hard way. The BBC has reported that after tattooing the child's name on his arm he found out another man was in fact the father. Somers had been caring for the child on a weekly basis and paying child support.

The child's mother has been convicted of fraud at the Liverpool Crown Court and now faces a one-year prison sentence. After doubts arose about the child's paternity, 29-year-old Danielle Morris agreed to let the child be DNA tested but then forged a document explaining the results.    

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There are no reported fraud cases like this in New Zealand, but in the UK, misattributed paternity is more common than you might think.

The New Zealand Law Commission has looked into this issue and concluded the rate of misattributed paternity is around 1.8 per cent of the population. This figure was based on advice from New Zealand fertility specialist Dr Richard Fisher and studies undertaken overseas.

While 1.8 per cent may seem tiny, when you apply that rate to the population of New Zealand, it's a bit of a shock to discover that the number of people whose father isn't who they think could be around 80,000. That's the population of Palmerston North.

Then if you take that number and add the number of affected men - 80,000 who think they are the dad and another 80,000 who actually are the dad - you've got the population of Hamilton.

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However, statistics on what percentage of those affected actually find out and at what stage in their lives aren't available.

Rachael Dewar, a family lawyer for almost 30 years, says she has given advice to both men and women in these complicated situations.

"Men don't usually come to see me during the mother's pregnancy, it's usually when the child is a toddler that they start to think that things aren't right and doubts creep in. They may have had a one-night stand with the mother, a brief relationship, or an off and on type of relationship for several years. The other situation is where a couple has been together for a long time and when they separate the mother tells the guy she doesn't think he is the father."

While the UK case is one of clear deceit, mothers may not be deliberately set out to deceive the men involved - they may just guess who the father is, but, unfortunately, sometimes they get it wrong.

Dewar says that money and stability are influencing factors for young mothers who are unsure who the father is. "They often say they thought they were doing the best thing for their child by choosing the guy who was more financially stable and able to pay child support, or the guy who was more likely to want to be involved in the child's upbringing. Others didn't want to ruin a stable romantic relationship with the 'father' and therefore kept their doubts to themselves."  

When men find out the truth, Dewar explains that the shock can be a lot to take. "Some men are upset or angry and want nothing to do with the child or the child's mother. When this happens we can usually reach an agreement with the mother out of court and have his name removed from the birth certificate. But if there is a stand-off then court action is the next step."

There is also the issue of money. A spokesperson for IRD says that men who have been paying child support and can prove they are not the genetic father are no longer liable to keep paying child support. They are also entitled to a refund. DNA test results from an accredited lab can be used to prove this or documentation showing the man was overseas at the time of the child's conception, had already had a vasectomy, or was in prison. No statistics are kept on the number of men who apply for refunds as their child support file is deleted after the refund has been made.

In contrast, men who were with the child's mother up until the time the truth came out might be out of luck. There is no clear legal obligation on the child's mother to pay them back for all the nappies, food, school fees, and the myriad of other costs that come with raising a kid.

At the other end of the spectrum, men who have formed a strong bond with the kid can react very differently to finding out they aren't their father. This is particularly the case if the child is older.

"These men are usually very upset over what's happened but they want to stay the child's father in a legal sense" explains Dewar. "This means have shared care of the child, provide financial support, the whole lot. They are also terrified that the mother will try to cut them out of the child's life." 

Dewar says usually some sort of a voluntary agreement can be arranged out of court, but if things turn to custard and everyone can't reach an agreement, a Family Court Judge will need to decide what role the father will have in the child's life.

Men who have doubts about whether they are the father of their child can undergo a DIY DNA test that can be done at home then mailed into a lab. These start at about $345, but if you want verified results from an accredited lab that can be used in court, you're looking at around $1125.

Just make sure you get the results sent to you directly.

Zoë Lawton is a family law researcher. Follow her on Facebook

 - Stuff

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