BOONE V. BALLINGER___S.W.3d___(Ky. App. 2007)
De facto custodian; doctrine of waiver and estoppel; Rebuttable presumption of paternity; Marital property (401k account)
TO BE PUBLISHED: REVERSING AND REMANDING (ABRAMSON)
DATE RENDERED: 5/4/2007
Several months into dissolution proceedings, Kelly learned for the first time that the two youngest children born during his fifteen-year marriage to Melinda were not his biological daughters. Kelly had been a devoted father to the three-year-old and six-year-old girls, performing the majority of the everyday tasks related to their upbringing and essentially serving as their primary parent. Genetic testing revealed that the girls’ biological father was Melinda’s boss, Daniel, with whom Melinda had been having an affair for seven years. Daniel was a friend of the family and the godfather of the older girl. Both Melinda and Daniel acknowledged that when Melinda became pregnant with each girl, they realized that Daniel might be the father, but neither took any steps to learn the truth and they continued to allow Kelly to believe that he was the father of the girls and to act in that role until Melinda instigated divorce proceedings. Confronted with certified DNA results that established that Daniel was the biological father, Kelly sought de facto custodian status, relying on his central parenting role throughout the girls’ lives. The trial court concluded, after an evidentiary hearing, that Kelly was indeed the de facto custodian and further that Daniel and Melinda were estopped from denying that Kelly was the legal father of the girls.
De Facto Custodian:
On appeal, Melinda and Daniel challenged the trial court's application of KRS 403.270 and its resulting conclusion that Kelly is the girls' de facto custodian. They contend this statute was unavailable to Kelly since he was not the sole caregiver for the two girls but rather provided for them “alongside the natural parent (Melinda).” Following Consalvi v. Cawood, CA agreed with Daniel and Melinda, holding that “it is not enough that a person provide for a child alongside the parent” in order to qualify as a de facto custodian, but rather he must “literally stand in the place of the natural parent.” 63 S.W.3d 195 (Ky. App. 2001)
Waiver of Superior Custody Rights:
Though Kelly did not qualify for de facto custodian status under Kentucky law, CA held that Daniel’s conduct may preclude him from displacing Kelly altogether in the girls’ lives. Even after the adoption of the de facto custodian statute, Kentucky courts continue to recognize the applicability of the doctrine of waiver in a child custody dispute. Accordingly, CA held that on remand the trial judge should address whether Daniel has waived the typically superior custody rights of a biological father. The waiver of a parent's superior custodial right has previously been recognized in two distinct scenarios. CA held that this case presented a third factual scenario: waiver of a biological father's custodial right as against the husband to whom the mother was married when the child was born and who has been led to believe that he is the child's father. Daniel maintained that waiver cannot apply in this case because waiver necessarily entails a knowing and voluntary surrender of a known right. He claims no waiver could occur until he knew the girls were actually his biological daughters. CA disagreed, because Daniel was aware of the possibility at the time each child was born.
Emphasizing that the girls were always in their mother's custody, Daniel also sought to forestall application of the waiver doctrine by citing B.F. v. T.D., 194 S.W.3d 310 (Ky. 2006) for the proposition that waiver can only apply if the children are not in either parent's physical custody. B.F. involved a same-sex couple, one of whom adopted a child who was then raised by both of them. There was no marital dissolution involved when the couple discontinued their relationship, so the non-adopting partner tried to establish her de facto custodian status. She was unsuccessful and the trial court held that she had no standing to pursue custody. CA and the Kentucky Supreme Court affirmed, citing KRS 403.260(4) (repealed in 1980) which limits standing to initiate a custody proceeding to the parents and those who have physical custody of the child. However, CA held that B.F. did not preclude application of waiver in this case. Unlike the domestic partner in B.F who had no standing to initiate a custody proceeding and thus place the issue before a court, Melinda placed the custody issue before the trial court when she filed for dissolution; she and Kelly were parties to the proceeding as the girls' parents and Daniel, deemed a “necessary party” by the trial court, was allowed to intervene. At that juncture, all three adults were properly before the court and the issue of waiver was relevant to the standard required to gain custody. The factors to be considered when determining whether a parent has waived his or her superior custody right include: the length of time the child has been away from the parent, circumstances of separation, age of the child when care was assumed by the non-parent, time elapsed before the parent sought to claim the child, and frequency and nature of contact, if any, between the parent and the child during the non-parent's custody.
Doctrine of Paternity by Estoppel:
CA held that the doctrine of paternity by estoppel adopted in S.R.D. v. T.L.B., 174 S.W.3d 502 (Ky. App. 2005), would not apply so as to estop Daniel and Melinda from seeking a paternity determination. The trial court relied on S.R.D. v. T.L.B. in estopping Daniel and Melinda from challenging Kelly's legal father status. However, that case involved estopping a husband from severing a parental relationship with a daughter born during his marriage who was eventually determined not to be his biological child. Although that case had the same “misled husband” scenario as this case, estoppel was employed to preserve the relationship (both emotional and financial) between the child and the only father she had ever known, not to sever the biological father's rights to establish his genetic connection to the child. Moreover, if a biological father is to be precluded from establishing any legal relationship to his child born during the mother’s marriage to another man, or if he is to be limited in his options, CA stated that such preclusion or limitation must be established by the legislature. The Kentucky General Assembly has not adopted either Uniform Act or any other statutory mechanism curtailing the legal rights of a biological father where his child is born during the mother’s marriage to another man.
CA recognized that an inconsistency exists between Consalvi and the doctrine of paternity by estoppel that was adopted in S.R.D. The focus of “paternity by estoppel” is on the child and the parent-child relationship that has developed. On the other hand, Consalvi holds that a man who provides care and financial support alongside the mother cannot acquire de facto custodian status so as to maintain a father-child bond after the parties' divorce. This result, of course, completely ignores the parent-child relationship that may have developed, a relationship which S.R.D. considered paramount Therein lies the irony: if a misled husband decides to “run” in order to avoid any parental support obligations, he would be prohibited from doing so by S.R.D. and would remain financially bound to the child, but should he desire to “stay” and maintain a relationship with the child, Consalvi, literally applied, says that he cannot be the de facto custodian and is not entitled to custody or visitation. Fortunately, a man who was led to believe he is the father of a child born during his marriage may be able to maintain a relationship with the child in those instances where the biological father has waived his superior right to custody.
If the trial court, on remand, finds that Daniel waived a biological parent's superior right to custody, the result would be to place Kelly, a non-parent who would otherwise have no equivalent right, on an equal footing with Melinda and Daniel in matters concerning custody and visitation. Conversely, such a finding, though conveying standing on Kelly to seek custody and visitation, does not necessarily result in Daniel’s loss of his right to seek the same. Once a non-biological parent is deemed to have standing to seek custody vis-à-vis the biological parents, the ultimate decision by the trial court as to who will be awarded physical custody of a child is dependent upon the best interests of that child.
Division of 401(k) account and exempt KTRS account:
CA held that the trial court erred in deeming it marital property without considering Kentucky Revised Statute (KRS) 403.190(4). By application of KRS 161.700(2), Kelly's entire Kentucky Teachers’ Retirement Services account is exempt. The amount to which Melinda's 401(k) account may be exempted is governed by the limitation found in KRS 403.190(4), i.e. her account is exempt up to an amount that does not exceed the value of Kelly's KTRS account.