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Wright v. Newman

    Brief Fact Summary. Plaintiff Newman, is seeking child support from Defendant Wright. Defendant is not the biological father of Plaintiff’s son. However, for ten years Defendant held himself out to be the child’s father.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Where a promise of parental support is made and detrimentally relied upon, it is enforceable under promissory estoppel.

    Facts. Plaintiff is seeking child support from Defendant. Defendant admits he is the father of Plaintiff’s daughter, but has introduced DNA evidence that he is not the father of Plaintiff’s son. However, Defendant is listed on the birth certificate of Plaintiff’s son and Plaintiff’s son uses Defendant’s surname. In addition, Defendant established a parent-child relationship with Plaintiff’s son.

    Issue. Does Defendant have to pay child support for Plaintiff’s son?

    Held. Yes. Defendant’s promise to support Plaintiff’s son is enforceable under promissory estoppel.
    The Court quickly rejects the notion that Defendant must pay child support based on the theory of “virtual adoption.” However, the Court states that its rejection of “virtual adoption” does not address the issue of whether Defendant must pay child support based on a contract theory.
    Although there is no written contract whereby Defendant agrees to pay child support for Plaintiff’s son, a promise for such support may be enforceable under promissory estoppel. The Court determined that Defendant knew Plaintiff’s son was not his, but still placed his name on the birth certificate, held Plaintiff’s son out as his child for ten years, and assumed the obligations of fatherhood. In addition, the Court notes that Plaintiff detrimentally relied on Defendant’s promise to support her son by not seeking child support from her son’s biological father.

    Dissent. The dissent does not deny that child support enforcement may be based on promissory estoppel. However, under these facts the dissent does not find detrimental reliance. The dissent argues that there is nothing preventing Plaintiff from seeking child support from the child’s biological father. With no impediment from recovery of child support, the dissent does not find detrimental reliance by Plaintiff. The dissent also notes that Defendant did not communicate with Plaintiff’s son for approximately five of the ten years and that Defendant has not supported the child for the past seven years.
    Concurrence. The concurring opinion addresses the dissent’s argument that there was no detrimental reliance. By Defendant’s actions over ten years, the concurring opinion emphasizes that Plaintiff’s reliance on his promise by not pursuing child support from the child’s biological father was both reasonable and detrimental. The concurring opinion also point out that holding otherwise would likely result in injustice since it would be extremely difficult to bring a successful paternity suit given that Defendant held himself out to be the child’s father for ten years.

    Discussion. In the present case, the Court found that Defendant voluntarily promised to support a child he knew was not biologically his and Plaintiff detrimentally relied on that promise. Therefore, the Court held that the promise was enforceable under promissory estoppel.


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