Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that a mother can be sued for fraud by a man duped into thinking he was the father of her child. She can also be ordered to repay child support she received from the man. This is the first time a claim of paternity fraud is being recognized in Iowa.
Joseph Dier supported a child born to Cassandra Jo Peters for more than two years after she convinced him that he was the father of the girl. Dier sought full custody of the child in December of 2009, but in 2011 Peters came clean and said that he was not the father. Indeed, two paternity tests showed that he could not be the girl’s father.
Dier filed a lawsuit to recover the child support he paid, along with reimbursement of the attorneys fees he paid while fighting for custody. The case was initially dismissed by a judge, but last week’s ruling sends the case back to the court for trial. Dier must prove that Peters knowingly lied when she said he was the father, that he relied on that representation to his detriment, and that he was justified in relying on it.
The Supreme Court ruled, however, that Dier could only sue to recover child support he paid, and not the legal fees incurred in the custody dispute. Not allowing Dier to recover the legal fees seems patently unfair, as it appears that he never would have had to spend the money on attorneys had Peters not lied about the child’s paternity.
It appears that Peters is going to use as her defense the claim that she “assumed” Dier was the father of the child, so she did not commit fraud.
Some courts are reluctant to allow paternity fraud suits, saying that they are damaging to the children and they waste financial resources which could instead be used to support the children. Unfortunately, however, I think it is important to allow swindled fathers recourse in such cases. If a mother has zero chance of being forced to pay back child support that was fraudulently obtained, what incentive is there for her to be truthful about the paternity (and potential other fathers) of the child?
Fraud in the context of family law is nothing new. My role revolves around the financial issues: calculating earnings available for support, evaluating the lifestyle of the parties prior to a separation or divorce, and searching for hidden income and assets. Paternity fraud is just one more avenue through which former partners and spouses can damage one another financially and emotionally.