Court's Recent "Estoppel Ruling"
Makes Paternity Permanent

By: Bradley Coates
Special to the
Oahu Island News

Pursuant to a recent Hawaii Supreme Court ruling, once a determination of paternity is established in a court order or judgment, it basically becomes permanent. This is the new state of the law, at least until the Supreme Court amends this ruling to say otherwise.

The legal definition of estoppel is a bar which precludes someone from denying the truth of a fact which has already been admitted by that person’s own actions and/or determined in an official proceeding or by an authoritative body. The concept of “paternity by estoppel” means that if a court order or judgment names the father of a child (or children), then no one can later successfully litigate in court to change the now established “legal father” status of the child or children.

This principle was enunciated by the Hawaii Supreme Court in the case of Doe v. Doe, 99 Hawaii 1 (2002). The Doe case made it clear that once paternity is decided in a court order or judgment, then it can never be successfully challenged or revised in the future. Since the establishment of paternity automatically triggers custody and child support issues, this becomes an absolutely crucial issue.

In the Doe case, the divorce decree named the husband as the biological father Then, after the divorce, the mother filed a petition for paternity alleging that another male was instead the biological father of the children. The Hawaii Supreme Court agreed with the Family Court and basically said “too bad” to Mom. She was precluded from pursuing her paternity matter. The new rule appears to be, “Once the father, always the father.”

This means that a mother and father need to be absolutely sure that the named father is indeed the true biological father before a court order or judgment which names a father is entered. A divorce decree is a court order. A judgment of paternity is a judgment. Such court orders naming a father are now basically irrevocable.

The children born to the wife during a marriage are presumed to be the legal children of the husband. Amazingly enough, this continues to hold true even if subsequent genetic testing later shows that husband was not really the biological father.

Clients in paternity and/or divorce cases must now be aware that they
cannot change their minds about who is the father once such judgments have been entered. If you are a divorcing husband, you must thus not allow a divorce decree to be entered unless you are absolutely satisfied with the correct paternity of all the children born during the marriage. Likewise, if you are the divorcing wife, and someone other than your husband is actually the biological father of any children born during marriage, it is essential that you bring a separate paternity action to establish that another person is the father.

The moral of this story is that males must request genetic testing right away if they have any doubts that they are the biological father. Conversely, moms must do likewise if they have any doubts that the husband is not the biological father. In light of this new ruling, it becomes tremendously important that all parties to these sorts of cases discuss their options immediately with an experienced family law attorney.

Bradley A. Coates, J.D., has been a practicing divorce attorney in Honolulu for over 20 years.  He has been selected as Honolulu's Best Divorce Lawyer and is the founder of Coates & Frey, Hawaii's largest family law firm. This article contains only "general" information and readers should not take any actions based on the "summarized" information contained herein.  Instead, appropriate experts should be consulted for each individual's case and/or fact situation.  Phone: 524-4854 or visit the firm's website at