Equitable Estoppel and Parental Rights: When The Court Should Look At The Best Interest Of A Child By Denying A Biological Parent Their Fundamental Right

The United States Constitution protects certain fundamental rights of the people. One of these rights is the right to raise your child. Separate but related to the right to raise your child, is the responsibility of the biological parent to pay for the support of their child. In two separate landmark decisions, the United States Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment protected the liberty of a parent to the right to raise the child as the parent chooses. In Meyer v. Nebraska[1], the Supreme Court found that a statute forbidding the teaching of the German language in school violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of the right to bring up children. The Court held that:

“The State may do much, go very far, indeed, in order to improve the quality of its citizens, physically, mentally, and morally, is clear; but the individual has certain fundamental rights which must be respected. The protection of the Constitution extends to all, to those who speak other languages as well as those born with English on the tongue… a desirable end cannot be promoted by prohibited means.”[2]

While the right to raise your child is a fundamental right, it can still be terminated for cause. In New York, grounds for legal termination of parental rights are:

  1. Parent intentionally abandoned their child for six months or more;
  2. Parent has severe mental health disability that prevents them from caring for their child;
  3. Parent inflicts frequent and severe abuse;
  4. Parent routinely neglects the child;
  5. Parent becomes incarcerated and refused to plan for the child’s future;
  6. Parent voluntarily gives up their right to the child. [3]

However, courts are reluctant to strip a parent of their parental rights. Recent court decisions in New York have shown this reluctance even in instances where there is no relationship between the child and the parent over a long period of time. Generally, Courts have granted parenting rights to parents who have maintained a relationship with the child since birth and have contributed to the support of the child in the form of child support payments. Yet, there are cases in which a parent continually pays child support but does not foster any relationship with the child, by the parent’s own choosing. When determining whether an absentee parent such as described above should be granted parenting rights, the New York courts use the “best interest of the child” standard.

When looking towards the best interest of a child, courts should adopt an equitable estoppel theory to prevent the parent, who has taken no steps to foster a relationship with their child, from later attempting to force themselves into their child’s life. Equitable Estoppel is defined as a defensive doctrine used to prevent one party from taking advantage of another party due to the first party’s own behavior. Here, it would be unfair to both the parent who has taken care of the child their whole life, and to the child, to have essentially a stranger enter their lives and disrupt their whole world.

In a 2009, the Second Department affirmed a ruling of a lower court that it would be detrimental for a child to visit his father after a 10-year gap in parenting time.[4] Here the courts found that the father had not attempted to see the child since he was an infant, never provided any support, and had no prior relationship with the child. The Second Department deemed that this visitation would be adverse to the welfare of the child. The Court held that:

“The evidence at the hearing amply supports the Family Court’s findings that the father had not seen his son since he was an infant, concededly had no relationship with him, and never provided any financial support for him. Moreover, the father had not attempted to visit or contact his son until he was nearly 10 years old, and the son did not wish to have a relationship with him. Although denial of a parent’s right of visitation is a drastic remedy, under the circumstances, we agree with the Family Court that forcing the son to visit the father would be detrimental to the son’s welfare.”[5]

The Court further found that the Family Court properly exercised its discretion when it denied the request for a forensic evaluation because the other evidence, which was a full evidentiary hearing which the father testified at, and an in camera interview with the child, was sufficient information to render an informed decision consistent with the child’s best interest.[6]

In Razo v. Leyva[7], the Second Department dismissed a father’s petition for visitation, without a hearing, based solely on the evidence presented. The evidence was as follows: the father did not seek visitation with his daughter until the child was nearly 10 years old and had no relationship with her previously.[8] He did not provide any financial support, and the Law Guardian indicated that the daughter did not wish to have a relationship with the father that she had never met.[9] The Court held that this evidence was sufficient to support a finding that it was not in the best interest of the child to have the estranged father introduced into the daughter’s life.[10]

In recent decisions, New York Courts have relied on Matter of Young v. Rios[11], in order to reject the theory of equitable estoppel. In Young, the Court held that:

“The purpose of equitable estoppel is to preclude a person from asserting a right after having led another to form the reasonable belief that the right would not be asserted, and loss or prejudice to the other would result if the right were asserts. The law imposes the doctrine as a matter of fairness. Its purpose is to prevent someone from enforcing rights that would work injustice on the person against whom enforcement is sought and who, while justifiably relying on the opposing party’s actions, has been misled into a detrimental change of position.”[12]

The Young case differs from other decisions and goes against the doctrine of equitable estoppel based on 1 fact in the case, and that is that the father had a prior order establishing visitation rights, and that the mother in this case violated those visitation rights which prevented the relationship from being formed. The Court did not want to apply equitable estoppel because there was a prior order establishing the father’s visitation rights, and that the father had not withdrawn his petition for visitation but, rather, it was interfered by the mother.[13]

In Second Department case of In the Matter of Joseph O. v. Danielle B.,[14] the biological father waited nearly 3 ½ years after the child’s birth to initiate a paternity proceeding. During that 3-year period, the child was cared for exclusively by the respondents and developed personal and loving relationships with the child. Here, the Court held that “the doctrine of equitable estoppel may be raised to prevent a biological father from asserting paternity rights in order to preserve the status of legitimacy for the child or to otherwise protect a child’s established relationship with another who has assumed the parental role.”[15] In this case, the father was aware of the child’s birth, was not named on the birth certificate and waited over 3-years to make a claim from paternity, and although there was some contact with the child, the father did not claim that he developed a parental relationship with the child or that the child would recognize him as her father.[16] The court found that under these circumstances, it would be unjust and inequitable to disrupt the child’s close parental relationship with each of the respondents and to permit the petitioner to take a parental role when he knowingly removed himself from developing a parental relationship with the child.[17]

Based on the existing case law, when determining the best interest of the child, courts should look to the doctrine of equitable estoppel. Not only does a parent have the obligation to support their child, but they must also foster a parental relationship with the child. When a parent waits years to begin asserting a claim for parental rights, they have effectively given up that right and should be estopped from claiming it. The factors to consider when applying the doctrine of equitable estoppel to a visitation/parenting petition are:

  1. Whether the petitioning parent attempted to foster a parental relationship with the child shortly after birth;
  2. Whether the petitioning parent voluntarily contributed to the support of the child;
  3. Whether the petitioning parent provided the child with any gifts, mental encouragement, or general monetary support;
  4. Whether another person has taken over that parental role in the absence of the petitioning parent; or
  5. Whether the child wants to foster a parental relationship with the absentee parent.

A combination of any of these should be considered by the court when determining whether the doctrine of equitable estoppel may be applied to a petitioner asserting parenting rights.