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Ruling alters alimony for divorced dads in Pa. paternity cases

Associated Press, By: PATRICK WALTERS, April 1, 2003, PHILADELPHIA, U.S.A.

more than five years after William Doran and his wife were divorced in 1995, he says, he began suspecting their son wasn't really his.

Because the 10-year-old didn't look or act like him, Doran asked his ex-wife, Pamela Smigiel, if they could conduct a paternity test. Those tests showed he was not the father and that the child belonged to a man Smigiel had an affair with, according to Luzerne County court records.

Now, the Superior Court has ruled Doran doesn't have to keep paying $400 a month in child support, a decision that alters the legal landscape in Pennsylvania paternity cases.

The case touches on an issue being dealt with by many other states. In the past, Pennsylvania courts have held that a man who acts as a child's father can be held financially responsible under a "presumption of paternity," even if it is later proved the child is not biologically his.

According to father's rights advocates, it had been difficult to get out of alimony payments involving a child who was raised in a marriage. That has been especially true in Pennsylvania, according to Carnell Smith, executive director of U.S. Citizens Against Paternity Fraud in Atlanta.

"Yes, the child is a victim, but the first victim in this whole charade here is the man," Smith said.

Under a law that went into effect in May in Georgia, for instance, if a man shows he never knew he wasn't the father, he can be eligible for relief from child support payments.

That law includes certain requirements for the man to be eligible. Among them, the man must not have adopted the child; the child must not have been conceived through artificial insemination; and the man can't have acknowledged paternity.

But in the Pennsylvania case, Smigiel's attorney, Gregory Skibitsky, said he thinks Doran suspected much earlier that the boy was not his, and that he should keep paying support. Last week's ruling does more to hurt the boy than to serve justice, Skibitsky said; he said his client hasn't decided if she will appeal.

"The court's primary focus should be what's in the best interest of the minor child," Skibitsky said Tuesday. "Our position is this decision potentially can have an adverse effect on what the primary focus of any custody action should be and that is what is in the best interest of the child."

Last week's ruling should translate into more protection for fathers in situations similar to Doran's, Smith said. He said states including Georgia, Alabama, Maryland and Ohio have laws that protect fathers from false claims of paternity, even if the man was married to the woman.

Smith said he was very surprised to hear about the Pennsylvania ruling and that he hoped it helped gain a groundswell of support for others.

Elliot B. Edley, the Wilkes-Barre-based attorney representing Doran, said he thinks the ruling won't overhaul Pennsylvania law, but will ensure fathers who are unjustly paying support will be kept from making unjust payments.

Doran, who estimates he paid $50,000 in child support and said the realization that the child was not his was very difficult, said he hopes that painful situations such as his can be avoided as much as possible.

"I still have feelings for him in my heart," he said of the boy, now 12. "I didn't know what to do with this - I just knew the truth had to come out."