Where a person is determined the parent of a child, but does not have responsibility for the custody of that child, California law requires that the non-custodial parent pay child support to the custodial parent in accordance with the state’s uniform support guidelines. Once paid, even if the person conclusively proves no biological relationship with the child, the law provides no mechanism for getting that support refunded.
In a recent opinion, the California Court of Appeal denied a request for reimbursement of child support payments made by a man who later learned he was not the father of the child he had been making payments for. County of Los Angeles v. James, Cal.App.2nd No. B187770, June 19, 2007.
In 1996, a default judgment of paternity was entered against the man, after he failed to respond to a paternity petition. The judgment declared the man father of the child, and required him to pay child support to the child’s mother. Although the man continued to deny paternity and was not involved in the child’s life, he made the ordered payments.
Five years after the judgment was entered, a genetic test confirmed that the man was not the child’s father. The county, who had enforced the support obligation, closed the case for collection of further support. Upon the man’s motion, the court set aside the judgment of paternity, but refused to grant his request for reimbursement of child support.
Citing California’s family code, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s ruling, finding that the law is clear that the paying person should not be reimbursed for payments in this situation, out of concern that requiring the custodial parent to reimburse the payments received could adversely affect that parent’s ability to financially provide for the child. The court determined that, in balancing the potential harm to the non-parent and the child, the adult should bear the harm.
California’s courts have also rejected attempts to recover the money through civil claims. In 2004, a man sued the mother of a child for reimbursement of child support he’d paid, claiming she had been unjustly enriched when she received the funds.
Given these decisions and current law, the state is sending a powerful message – a person who is declared to be the parent of a child, but questions that paternity, should take steps to verify parentage without delay, or risk loss of monies paid to support that child.