Ruling in three contested child-support cases, a sharply divided Court of Appeals decided this week that a father can challenge paternity years after legally acknowledging parenthood.
The cases all involved the genetics, with the court's majority in the 4-3 decision saying biological proof is key to paternity proceedings. The minority expressed fear that the decision would leave an untold number of children without fathers or support.
Child advocates fear that the ruling by Maryland's highest court will prompt throngs of men to demand paternity tests in hopes of ending child-support obligations.
The biological proof is key, the court ruled, no matter when those hearings are held and taking precedence even over the "best interest of the child," a standard used in weighing child welfare issues, including custody.
"An examination of the best interest of the child has no place in that determination," Judge Dale R. Cathell wrote for the majority.
"The only losers under the majority opinion are the children," Chief Judge Robert M. Bell wrote in a sharp dissent.
Because of the decision, courts must order tests when men challenging paternity request them, pursuant to a 1995 change in state law that allowed courts to reopen paternity decrees. The ruling is retroactive to children born earlier.
Legal experts said increasingly accurate and more affordable genetic testing, coupled with requirements that women name a father if they seek public assistance, is leading to belated paternity challenges, resulting in legal issues many states have yet to address.
The University of Baltimore Family Law Clinic had wanted the court to rule that no trial judge could reopen a paternity case without ruling that it was in the best interest of the child to do so.
"To leave the issue of parentage open for 18 years is a real disservice to the child," said Teresa L. Kaiser, executive director of the state Child Support Enforcement Administration. She said a paternity obligation "goes way beyond genetics."
She expects to see an increase in challenges and testing that extends to the children and the men.
"What would that say to you as a child if your father wanted you to get tested? It says, 'Dad doesn't want me,'" Kaiser said.
Dawn Marie Nee, lawyer for one of the fathers, said a paternity lie is probably worse and defies logic. Men have every right to know if they have sired children, she said.
The cases before the Court of Appeals involved three children now in or near their teens and two men.
One is William C. Langston, a Baltimore painter who acknowledged paternity of two children by two women, according to court records. He learned that a girl born in 1987 was not his child when, a decade later, her maternal grandfather sought benefits for her and needed to establish paternity.
The Baltimore Circuit Court refused to reopen his 1987 consent decree and another for a boy he had acknowledged fathering in 1984.
Nee, his lawyer, said that led to his being in contempt of court, owing about $25,000 in child support, but with DNA results showing he was not the father. He did not understand why nobody was listening to him.
In the other case, Talbot County carpenter Tyrone D. Wilson believed he had fathered a son in 1989. He sought testing in 1998, when the boy's mother sought more child support, but a lower court said he had waited too long.
Wilson was involved in an another, earlier paternity case with a different mother, in which the Court of Appeals said he had to support a child shown by DNA testing not to be his. That case led the General Assembly to change the law six years ago to allow a belated challenge to a paternity decree.
Sun staff writer Stephanie Hanes contributed to this article.