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Father’s paternity undone after 16 years

Once a court rules that someone is a child’s father, it’s very rare for that order to be undone later on. In other words, once you’re deemed the dad, you remain the dad, with all the legal rights (like visitation) and responsibilities (like support) this may entail. But in rare cases, a court might actually undo or “vacate” such an order.

This happened recently in South Carolina.

Michael Ashburn was stationed at Parris Island around 2000-2001 while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. While he was there, he had a relationship with a local woman, April Rogers, who became pregnant. The child was biracial.  Rogers, who is black, told Ashburn he must be the father because he was the only white man she had ever been involved with.

Ashburn didn’t insist on DNA testing and instead agreed in a 2001 child support order that the girl was his daughter.

Over the next dozen years, Ashburn paid child support but had no relationship with the child. In fact, he only saw her twice — once when she was an infant and the Marines ordered him to do so, and once when she was 12, after Rogers demanded more child support. During that second visit, Ashburn took a DNA sample, tested it with a drugstore kit and learned that the girl was not, in fact, his child. A second test by the state department of social services confirmed this.

Rogers also apparently admitted at one point that she became intoxicated at a party around the time of the child’s conception and “something may have happened” with a different Caucasian male friend.

Ashburn went to court to have his paternity order vacated. A family court judge refused, finding no fraud on Rogers’s part.

But the South Carolina Court of Appeals reversed on the grounds that Ashburn and the child, now 16, had no emotional relationship, and their financial relationship wasn’t a strong enough reason to rule that it was in the child’s best interest for him to remain her legal father. Accordingly, the paternity order was vacated and Ashburn no longer has to pay support.

It’s important to note that this is the first time South Carolina has ever vacated a paternity order on appeal. It’s also important to note that the law may differ from state to state. In some states, it might be easier to get a paternity order vacated. In other states, it may be harder. Even more importantly, this court could have ruled differently if Ashburn and the girl had an actual emotional bond.

So, if somebody claims you’re the father of a child that you suspect may be someone else’s, it’s best to insist on DNA testing right away. Don’t depend on a court rescuing you from your obligations based on facts that come to light years later.

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